New Study Explores the Use of Metaphors in Cancer

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Cancer patients benefit from having the freedom to use whichever metaphor suits them best in confronting their disease, says new research. Media portrayals of cancer as a battle to be fought, and its focus on 'brave fighters' beating the odds, can be harmful to patients, creating a sense of guilt or failure in those facing a terminal diagnosis.

"The message that people get from the media and from charity campaigns is that they have to 'fight' and 'beat' their cancer," says Elena Semino, Professor of Linguistics and Verbal Art from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science based at Lancaster University. "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."

The Battle Metaphor

For their research, Professor Semino and colleagues analysed 1.5 million words taken from interviews and online forum discussions involving cancer sufferers, family carers and health care professionals. They 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, war metaphors aren't universally bad; for some people they're the right fit.

"For some patients, some of the time, the idea of being engaged in a fight is motivating," says Semino. "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."

The Journey Metaphor

Second to battle rhetoric is the metaphor of the journey, although this too has its share of detractors. "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.”

Cancer metaphors, and all metaphors, serve a greater purpose-- they help people cope with their disease and they help them to express feelings and ideas that are otherwise difficult to articulate.

Professor Semino believes that nobody should be discouraged from employing any type of metaphor that may be helpful to them. To that end, she is working with the UK's NHS to produce a metaphor manual, featuring many examples of metaphors produced by other cancer sufferers.

Source: ESRC: Battle metaphors for cancer can be harmful

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