‘Cancer metaphors’ may make patients feel guilty


Language experts have warned that comparing cancer to a ‘battle’ could result in sufferers feeling guilty if their condition worsens.

They are asking that doctors not introduce the ‘language of war’ when they discuss the disease as it could make sufferers feel that they have failed.

A study including 200 patients, doctors and carers found that while these war metaphors aid some patients, others may feel personally responsible for the condition they find themselves in.

Lancaster University academics undertook research into the way patients and those who treat them describe the disease.

They state that the use of language which describes the disease as an enemy is often not helpful and doctors should rather focus on how patients can live with the disease.

According to Elena Semino, a linguistics professor, the terms used may be meant well, but the effect of using war metaphors can be damaging to certain people. She said that many patients are not happy about their illness being described in this fashion as blame is being placed on the patient and there is a sense that if you are dying, you probably gave up and have not fought hard enough to survive.

She offered the example of Stephen Sutton as a patient who lived his life to its full extent during his treatment period. He raised £5m for charity with his online campaign and blog after being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at the age of 15.

Professor Semino stated that cancer is becoming one of the chronic diseases and finding ways to live with it has become extremely important.

She is currently working on a guide for specialists and doctors in the UK to aid them in choosing the most suitable words when communicating with patients.

The guide will suggest that healthcare professionals use battle metaphors only if the patient uses that type of language.

According to Professor Semino patients sometimes find the idea of being in a fight quite motivating and they will state with pride that they are fighters, giving them a sense of purpose, meaning and identity.

She said the study indicated that each patient is different and the different metaphors will be suitable for different people, at different times.

Macmillan Cancer Support’s response to this research was that they ‘stayed clear of the language of war’, but they indicated that young people identify with the idea of fighting the disease and often make use of this type of language themselves.

Image Credit: dreamingofariz


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