Cancer and the Language of War

Person wearing medieval armor riding a horse

Many of us watched the recent 3-part Ken Burns PBS documentary, The Emperor of All Maladies. Even if you didn’t, it's likely that you saw or heard frequent media stories about cancer during the weeks before and after. And it's probable that in every one of them, cancer was presented as the enemy and we, scientists, clinicians, patients and caregivers, as its foes.

Although patients fight other diseases, cancer definitely dominates the battlefield from the minute it's diagnosed (I'm going to beat this!) through treatment (I'm fighting it!), after treatment (I survived!) and sadly, if the patient passes away (she lost the battle).

War is the context in which most people experience cancer and for many, it's quite an accurate metaphor. People with cancer often say it helps them marshal their strength, recognize their enemy, and stay on track with difficult treatments, strict health regimens and multiple logistical challenges.

Using the battle metaphor however, doesn't fit for everyone. It implies that there will be a winner and a loser. It suggests that if a patient fights his hardest, smartest and longest, he will conquer the cancer. It demands that patients have a "winning attitude". Yet, we all have too many friends and loved ones who have died from cancer, and trying harder would not have saved them.

They craved good health and quality of life and instead, they suffered from the physical and emotional pain and challenges of being sick. If they don’t survive, do we really want to think of them as having lost the battle? Or, do we want to acknowledge their love of life, the positive imprint they left on the world and the relationships they have cherished? For some people, cancer is genetic bad luck, a mistake, one they hope can be fixed. For them, it’s not about a battle between good and evil. It’s about victory in life and a legacy of love.

Ellen has worked to support families with cancer for 20 years and continues her career as Chief Strategy and Alliance Officer at CancerCare.