In Discussing Cancer, Should We Use Fighting Words?

September 2, 2011
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Every day in obituaries, you will find combat metaphors about people who have died of cancer. “After a heroic battle against cancer,” “valiant fight against melanoma.” And so on. News stories routinely refer to “weapons” against the illness, the “arsenal” of drugs, “victories.”

Every day in obituaries, you will find combat metaphors about people who have died of cancer. “After a heroic battle against cancer,” “valiant fight against melanoma.” And so on. News stories routinely refer to “weapons” against the illness, the “arsenal” of drugs, “victories.”

Many psychologists, doctors and cancer patients have raised objections to the military trope for the disease. They say that putting the experience into martial terms means that those who die are by definition, at least figuratively, losers. Not just of their lives — as if their lives weren’t enough — but of personal wars. That they gave up. Dr. Andrew Weil says that “it’s not the best way” to think of cancer. Cancer patients writing online and bloggers have also deplored this linguistic habit. “Does it mean that if I croak it’s my fault?” one asks.

At least to ourselves, maybe late at night — and maybe feeling a little like idiots — surely some of us may gather strength from saying of those murderous invaders, in our best Churchillian cadences, “We shall fight them in the mediastinum, we shall fight them in the lymph nodes, we shall fight them in the trachea, we shall fight them in the pleura….”

Full New York Times article on fighting cancer.

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