We all know the language that gets used about cancer. It’s an ‘enemy’. We ‘fight’ it. Hopefully we can ‘defeat’ it and become a ‘survivor’. And those who don’t ‘lose their battle’.
A lot of people are happy to use this language – or at least don’t question the logic of it – but a lot of people aren’t. Articles like this, in the wake of the death of broadcaster Rachel Bland, make the case that framing cancer treatment in aggressive, militaristic terms is a worn-out and strangely macho cliché that reduces everyone who undergoes breast cancer as a grizzled survivor at best or not strong enough at worst.
A recent medical study examined the language of cancer and came to the conclusions that treating cancer as a ‘fight’ can have long-term implications for those with cancer – and also can stop people without cancer from doing what they can to avoid it.
In one study, the research team split a group of volunteers with no history of cancer into two groups. One group was asked: “What things would you do to fight against developing cancer?”, while the other group was asked: “What things would you do to reduce your risk of developing cancer?” Then, they were asked to list the things they could do – or stop doing – to reduce the risks of developing cancer.
Breast cancer terminology: defence is the best attack
The researchers collated the responses and discovered that the group that was exposed to combat-related metaphors listed significantly less self-control preventative behaviours. Why would this happen? Because according to the researchers, framing cancer in combative terms means that we see it as an unavoidable thing that can only be attacked when it’s there. “When we’re at war,” said the study’s authors, “we have no choice but to engage a hostile force that must be attacked in order to be stopped. Self-limitation is not part of that equation.”
Another study claimed that people who see themselves ‘at war’ with cancer are more likely to frame their treatment plan in more aggressive terms – such as pushing to undergo a severe course of chemotherapy rather than early palliative care, which can provide a better quality of life and sometimes even extend lifespan.
Breast cancer terminology: words matter
The study, conducted by Lancaster University, analysed one and a half million word’s worth of interviews and online cancer discussions, and discovered that ‘fight’ and ‘battle’ were two of the most commonly-used words, and that framing the discussion in combative terms foists the blame onto the people who have developed it. “Blame is being put on the patient, and there’s almost a sense that, if you are dying, you must have given up and not fought hard enough” claimed the study author, Professor Elena Semino.
Not only that, but the cancer-as-war analogy can also affect people who have successfully undergone cancer treatment – the guilt of ‘surviving’ while others didn’t, for example – and those who have successfully undergone treatment only for the cancer to return can experience an additional sense of failure – that their previous ‘victory’ is now fraudulent.
Naturally, the language you choose to use is a completely personal thing: if seeing cancer as an enemy that needs to be fought helps you make sense of your situation, that’s absolutely fine. But just as there are many different treatments, there are also many different ways to look at it – and you’re free to pick your words you like.