By Gwen Darien and Musa Mayer
Weighing in on war and other cancer metaphors
By Gwen Darien and Musa Mayer
"In the beginning I used the words battle, fight and war quite frequently," says Suzanne Lindley, who was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. "Every test, treatment and consultation felt like an onslaught of artillery, and I deemed the tumors taking up post in my body as the hated enemy."
For another cancer survivor, who has metastatic breast cancer, military metaphors seemed to fit: "I consider dealing with cancer an out-and-out battle—me against it. Sure, it's going to win—no one gets out of here alive no matter what you want to believe, but it's not taking me without a fight!"
"I always did like Xena, Warrior Princess," agrees Carol Isley Finch, who was diagnosed with stage IIIB ovarian cancer and stage IV breast cancer. "And, for me anyway, it feels like a battle, in which I need to strategize and plan my course of attack. I want to push back the invasion and eliminate the threat to my body. For that, I need a battle plan. I would not call myself a warrior to anyone, as it sounds a bit fanatical ... I do sometimes, feel like an embattled veteran. I've used that before with my husband and myself—he had esophageal cancer and I had ovarian and now breast cancer."
It was the sense that her life was in danger that motivated Paula Breslow, a stage I breast cancer survivor, to embrace warlike metaphors. "Considering cancer as a lethal threat, I like the military analogies," she says. "It is even worse than the enemy you can see. It is insidious and invisible and unpredictable."
Advocates and policymakers have also favored warlike metaphors. "As someone who is trying to get other people engaged in advocacy, I need a cause that will generate action," says Nancy Roach, a stage IB1 cervical cancer survivor who is now a colon cancer advocate. "War is a great cause that allows many calls-to-action. So it works well in politics. I think it works less well for patients, because war implies it is possible to win—and sometimes you can't."
Others have found unavoidable and disturbing implications in the war metaphors so commonly used. "The words (battle, victim, even survivor) seem to reflect an early time when cancer was as mysterious as the surface of the moon," writes Dana Adkins, who was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. "A cancer diagnosis was considered to be a death sentence so if you didn't survive it, you were a victim, and if you did survive, you had successfully battled cancer. The word victim seems far too passive for anyone undergoing treatment for cancer today; the word battle errs in the opposite direction, as though a patient can conquer the disease just by having the right attitude and the right pharmaceutical company."
Despite its ability to rally people to action, the war metaphor seems contrary to the need that many advocates feel to remove blame from the person diagnosed with cancer.
"I've always thought [the battle jargon] creates a high degree of performance pressure," says Marjorie Gallece, who was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in 2000. "I did not consider myself courageous or at war when I was diagnosed ... I found the experience humbling, and I never felt so weak or helpless. The war jargon made it worse. What I wanted was a sense of peace. To my primarily pacifist way of thinking, the idea of becoming a soldier and fighting or conquering is negative in so many ways. War also conjures up the idea of a body count. All of it is so negative, and the idea of death permeates war language. Of course, cancer kills. The mind and spirit shouldn't be forced into such a nasty and negative place."