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The Problem with “Fighting” Cancer

February 26, 2013
B0007784 Lung cancer cells

Lung Cancer Cell by wellcome imagesCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last time I spoke to you about wording and public health, and the unintentional impact that can have on people. I want to continue on that theme today, and talk about what is perhaps one of the most pervasive, and more controversial language choices that we as as a society have made: the military language we use around cancer. Often, the media (and by extension, society) describe someone with cancer as a “warrior” who “battles” cancer. This language isn’t rare, and has been around since the mid-70s when Susan Sontag wrote her book “Illness as a Metaphor.” Research by Seale (2001) states:

News stories commonly feature sports celebrities with cancer, as well as sporting activities by ordinary people with cancer, designed to generate a sense of (usually successful) personal struggle.

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  1. Donald Tolfree permalink

    Hi Atif,

    Thanks for the posting. As a person with cancer and someone who understands the use of battle language in discussing cancer patients but doesn’t overly agree with it, I appreciate your taking the time to bring awareness to the this topic.

    The following quote I pulled from your posting, which you pulled from the Canadian Cancer Society

    “You may feel like a “survivor” or have heard the term used in conversation. But what does it mean? It means different things to different people. You may not like the way the word is used, or you might feel that it doesn’t apply to you. But the word “survivor” helps many people. It can be powerful, and for some, it’s a positive way of looking at themselves. Using it helps them to cope with their life after cancer”

    I would like to focus on the last line “…life after cancer”. It took me a long time to figure this out, but for me there is no life after cancer. There is life with cancer. I have incurable folliculare lymphoma. It presented in my abdonment as a large mass that,with the help of chemo,has been put into remission. There is no cure, not after five years, not ever. My cancer will come back.

    With this sobering truth, my question becomes “how to live my life with cancer”? Because of the lack of scientific evidence, this is a very difficult question to answer as research into ways to control cancer (naturally and medically) tend to argue how bad the other method is without focusing on how good their method is….but I digress…

    Thank you for writing about the terminology used by those affected by cancer. I think for us to truly beat this disease, we are going to have to recognize that sometimes there is no life after cancer, but there is a long, happy and healthy life with cancer.


    • Hi Donald and thanks for your comment. I absolutely agree with you – there is no “after cancer.” There is living with cancer, and there are steps you take to prepare yourself for this “new normal.” I’m glad you liked the article and that it resonated with you.

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