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Make love, not war

By Timothy Cocks Metaphor and language 18 Dec 2014

Reported recently at ScienceDaily:

War metaphors for cancer hurt certain prevention behaviours

It’s not unusual for people to use war metaphors such as “fight” and “battle” when trying to motivate patients with cancer. But a new University of Michigan study indicates that using those words can have an unintended negative effect.

“Hearing metaphoric utterances is enough to change the way we think about a concept,” said Hauser, the study’s lead investigator. “When we hear the phrase ‘win the battle against cancer,’ it forces us to think of cancer as if it’s an enemy that we are at war with.”

These metaphors emphasize power and taking aggressive actions toward an enemy. However, the bulk of cancer prevention behaviors — such as curbing alcohol intake, salty foods and smoking — involve limitation and restraint. None of them fit with an enemy metaphor that promotes power and aggression, the researchers said.

“Fight and battle are actually among the top 10 verbs used to describe cancer,” Hauser said. “Constant exposure to even minor metaphorical utterances may be enough to make enemy metaphors for cancer a powerful influence on public health — with unfortunate side-effects.”

The ideas above are not entirely new, Susan Sontag wrote about metaphor in illness in the ’70s, however the suggestion that war related metaphors may diminish preventative behaviours is both novel, and alarming. At PainAdelaide earlier this year, Professor Julio Licinio called for a ‘war on mental illness’. I wrote about it then, and I still don’t think we need another ‘war on’ anything.

Pain is fertile ground for war metaphors- ‘fighting the pain’, ‘battling through it’, are obvious. More subtle war metaphors might slip by unnoticed – stabbing, shooting, cutting, lacerating, lancing, beating, punishing, killing, torturing (these are all from the McGill pain questionnaire). What effect might these metaphors have on an individual’s conception and experience of pain – something to be ‘beaten’? Some externally embodied ‘enemy’ that ‘mustn’t be allowed to win’?

Leads one to ask the question…


What war like metaphors have you heard in the clinic lately? What about attempts to counter these and help people fall in love with their various bits again? Please share in the comments below.

-Tim Cocks

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  1. The report from dailyscience reminded me of a interview with the late Christopher Hitchens (British Journalist) (2.30). He talks about cancer being like a ‘malignant alien’ and that because it has a ‘life’ of some description words such as battle and fight have gravitated to it.

  2. I think the juxtaposition between the cancer war metaphor and the recommended behavior “such as curbing alcohol intake, salty foods and smoking — involve limitation and restraint.” Could a person who feels that they are only employing tactics of limitation and restraint feel that they are not being “aggressive” enough in the “war against cancer”? Could this perception of passivity influence outcomes, and would we see anything similar in pain?

  3. Tim I remember listening to a radio four programme about metaphors for healing in 2009 . Its no longer available to listen (unless you pay £3 via google) However Jan Alcock one of the participants has some interesting things to say about war metaphors and destruction here .

  4. Do you have the courage to ask the patient to embrace their cancer, make it their friend and not the enemy then ask them to pose the question “What is my cancer telling Me”?………….
    DB London
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