Language of cancer?

Is it time to ditch the fighting talk over cancer?

From battles to journeys: changing how we talk about illness and cancer

A new ad for Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children has reignited a debate over the use of metaphors for illness. The ad features images such as kids in pyjamas running into battle beside soldiers in full regalia. It's been praised for its empowering message. But it has also been criticized for perpetuating the idea of war as a metaphor for disease.

Articles about the ad in the CBC, Vice and The Globe and Mail covered the problems with the war imagery.

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Should we stop referring to cancer as a fight or a battle?

By Joe Harker

Cancer is one of the deadliest and most common diseases known to man. Almost everybody has either been affected by cancer or knows someone who has been, meaning that cliches over treatments have developed.

Some patients are asking for people to be more aware of the potential cliches used when referring to cancer, including describing sufferers as "brave" or putting the treatment into the context of a battle.

When someone dies of cancer they are often described as having "lost their fight" with the disease, while those who survive are described as defeating it.

The Claim:

A survey by Macmillan Cancer Support of people who have or used to have cancer found that they did not like being referred to as a "victim" or "cancer stricken".

The survey says language used to refer to cancer patients is divisive, with many seeing words and phrases intended to be motivational or uplifting as inappropriate. People had a preference for direct, factual language over platitudes and references to war.

Describing cancer as a battle and those killed by it as having lost makes some cancer patients think the phrase is implying that the person who died didn't fight hard enough or gave up. Many do not see themselves as heroes or brave fighters, believing these terms put pressure on them after the diagnosis.

The survey found that 42 per cent of cancer patients found being called a hero to be "disempowering". People wouldn't mind being asked how others can refer to them after the diagnosis but they don't want to be stuck with platitudes and labels.

The Counter Claim:

Different studies have found that other patients approve of the allusion to cancer being a battle, saying it is helpful as it gives them "agency and pride". They can feel like they are in a winnable encounter.

A majority of battle metaphors used when talking about cancer are designed to be positive, to encourage the patient they have the power to recover and will not have their lives taken over by the disease.

Using a journey metaphor was also seen by some as empowering, allowing them to think of friends and family as companions. This form of language can also help see people who were previously diagnosed act as guides.

The Facts:

When it comes to talking about cancer the language to use is not one size fits all. Some like the reference to battles and fighting, considering it to be empowering. Others believe such language does the opposite and would prefer a more direct conversation.

Studies have linked battle metaphors to increased risk of depression and anxiety after three years. People who don't like such language being used in the conversation about cancer feel compelled to suppress their feelings.

According to Cancer Research UK there are more than 360,000 new cancer cases diagnosed in Britain every year, while one in two people born in the UK after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer. A person is diagnosed with cancer once every two minutes.

Of those who are diagnosed with cancer, 50 per cent live for a decade or more after the diagnosis. Survival rates are improving and have doubled in the UK over the last 40 years. 38 per cent of diagnosed cases are classed as preventable through a different lifestyle.

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