Battle metaphors for cancer can be harmful

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‘War’ metaphors are commonly used to describe people’s experiences of cancer – by the media, by charities raising awareness of the disease, and by cancer sufferers themselves. However this approach is not helpful for many patients, according to Elena Semino, Professor of Linguistics and Verbal Art from the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science based at Lancaster University.

“The message that people get from the media and from charity campaigns is that they have to ‘fight’ and ‘beat’ their cancer,” says Professor Semino. “Although well meaning, the effect of using war metaphors like this can be damaging to some people.”

“If people are diagnosed with terminal cancer, then they are spoken of as ‘losing their battle’. Many patients are unhappy with their illness being discussed in this way. 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 have fought hard enough.”

Professor Semino and her colleagues have been studying the use of metaphors in the way we talk about cancer since 2012. As part of their research they have analysed 1.5 million words taken from interviews and online forum discussions involving cancer sufferers, family carers and health professionals. The team found that the type of metaphors people chose to use when describing their cancer reflected and affected how they viewed and experienced their illness. Some patients who had been told their cancer was terminal reported a sense of failure and guilt that they had not won their battle. However, others found war metaphors useful.

“For some patients, some of the time, the idea of being engaged in a fight is motivating. Some people say with pride that ‘I’m such a fighter’, and they find a sense of meaning and purpose and identity in that. The study showed that we are all different, and different metaphors work for different people, and at different times.”

Another common metaphor used to describe having cancer was that of being on a ‘journey’. People described living with cancer as being on a ‘hard road’, and there was a feeling of companionship on forums, where everyone is seen as being on the same path. Professor Semino found that this metaphor was much less likely to cause harm and feelings of guilt. However, it could lead to feelings of frustration.

“Some people would say things like ‘how am I supposed to navigate this road that I don’t want to be on?’ and, ‘having cancer is like driving a coach uphill with no back wheels’. Others who were at the final stages of their disease would describe themselves as passengers on a journey who have no control over the destination.”

According to Professor Semino, metaphors help people to express ideas that are particularly sensitive and emotional, and are therefore especially helpful to cancer sufferers. Rather than discouraging people from using any type of metaphor that may be helpful to them, she is working with the NHS to produce a metaphor manual, featuring many examples of metaphors produced by other cancer sufferers.

“As metaphors are a tool for making sense of our experiences, when you are vulnerable and dying you should have as many tools at your disposal as possible, so that you can choose the one that suits you best at that time.”

Professor Semino’s work will be discussed at a lecture as part of the 2014 ESRC Festival of Social Science on 4 November.

For further information contact:

ESRC Press Office

Notes for editors

  1. Event: Language Matters: Communication, Culture, and Society
    Location: Royal United Services Institute, 61 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2ET
    Date: 4 November 2014, 17.30 – 19.30
  2. Organised by the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science, the event will showcase the impact of language on society. The timely themes will be presented in an approachable manner that will be accessible to a general audience, stimulating to novice language researchers, and interesting to social scientists. The themes of the talks are:
    • Wolves in the wires: online abuse from people to press
    • A ‘battle’, a ‘journey’, or none of these? Metaphors for cancer
    • What can corpora tell us about learning a foreign language?
    • Words ‘yesterday and today’

    Please register online to book your place.

  3. The 12th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 1-8 November 2014 with over 200 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country’s leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. See the full programme of events or join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary.

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