Loaded Language
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By Gwen Darien and Musa Mayer

Loaded Language

Weighing in on war and other cancer metaphors

By Gwen Darien and Musa Mayer


A diagnosis of cancer can heighten our sensitivity to language. We hang onto our doctor's words, which elate us or crush us. Our family and friends may not realize how their comments affect us. We listen for intimations of blame—blame for our unhealthy behavior, our failure to seek medical attention early enough, blame for not getting better, or for inconveniencing others. We look for ways that language is used to include and to exclude us. Are we part of a community of cancer survivors? When cancer is used as a metaphor for societal evil, does that feel insulting or hurtful?

When we talk about the language of cancer, a few themes emerge, yet our response to them is not universal. And, the meaning of language changes: Words that were lifesaving, or devastating, when we were first diagnosed may be almost neutral 10 years later; a person whose cancer is in remission has a very different viewpoint from one who is living with advanced disease.

In this essay, we've chosen to talk about metaphors—some of the most meaningful and value-laden messages in the language of cancer. We asked people who have been diagnosed with cancer like ourselves (Darien was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Mayer with breast cancer) how they feel about common metaphors applied to our disease. We wanted to know which metaphors and images respondents prefer, or if some people reject metaphoric language and euphemisms entirely, in favor of plain, direct descriptions of their cancer experiences.

The essay that follows weaves together our thoughts, literary and historical voices, and the opinions of the survivors who answered our query. We hope you, too, will join this dialogue. Please write to letters@CRmagazine.org and share your opinion.

Metaphors are well-trodden ground for writers who've been diagnosed with cancer, as the late Susan Sontag and Anatole Broyard illustrate:

My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take up one's residence in the kingdom of ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped. – Susan Sontag, llness as Metaphor

In fact, metaphors may be as necessary to illness as they are to literature, as comforting to the patient as his own bathrobe and slippers. At the very least, they are a relief from medical terminology....Perhaps only metaphor can express the bafflement, the panic combined with beatitude, of the threatened person. – Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness

Even these beautifully written and extremely divergent approaches to being ill—Sontag's seminal essay and Broyard's response from his prostate cancer memoir—perhaps oversimplify the discussion of metaphor and illness. When we're searching for meaning, metaphor may be one of our most effective tools for understanding. When we're facing treatment and recovery, metaphors can lend us a structure around which we can organize our efforts. But, when we talk about dying or engage in a public discussion of cancer, plain, direct language may be best.



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