Opinion: Let’s attack Cancer metaphors


In the past 24 months, I’ve read dozens of articles on the subject of cancer metaphors and in particular their use in describing cancer experiences with the words ‘fight’, ‘battle’ and other ‘military’ sounding terms.  The authors say that perhaps this is not the best language to use.  One author used the term ‘violence’ to describe these type of metaphors.  A ridiculous misrepresentation of the metaphor in my opinion.

Let me put my cards right on the table as I would hate to twist the meaning of words or the inference of any metaphors I might use.  I don’t like Cancer – it attacked me, it attacked my family, it attacked others I know, it has killed people I know……. it has killed millions of people and changed many lives. I’m ‘fighting’ Cancer.  I’m in a ‘battle’ with Cancer.

But I don’t mean all that in any ‘violent’ way……….  Dear trendy writers,  please stop misinterpreting what language people use for your own trendy populist purposes. 

One of the arguments used by these ‘trendy’ writers and newspaper authors against the use of what they perceive to be ‘military’ or ‘violence’ metaphors, is that people die of Cancer and therefore they are seen to have ‘lost’ their battle or fight. Clearly, it’s sad when anyone dies of any illness.

We all die at some point, ‘life’ eventually kills us. Yet, few people are reported to have lost their fight with life. So why focus this “fight” debate on cancer?

I have access to ‘reinforcements’ and ‘allies’; and their ‘weapons’ in my battle with cancer.  There are many options including surgical strikes with invasive and minimally invasive forays. The use of WMTD (weapons of mass tumour destruction) is authorised if applicable, i. e. I have chemical and nuclear options. Using these ‘weapons’ and deploying them both strategically and tactically, I can put up the best fight possible and by adjusting the disposition of my ‘forces’ when required, I can delay the advance of the ‘enemy’, protect my flanks and force it to change its course or retreat.

Not happy with infiltrating your body, Cancer also wants to take advantage of your fragile state by playing with your mind. It does this by creating the illusion of an uncertain future, makes you worry about your family and makes your family and friends worry about you. I’ve therefore also deployed a psychological warfare capability to counter this threat. It’s a weapon known as ‘a positive mindset’.

If it finally gets me, I know I’ll have tried my best and I will go down fighting hoping to be mentioned in despatches. I certainly do not see this as a defeat and anyone who knows me will not think that either.  I know that others will carry on the ‘fight’ in my absence until Cancer is defeated (and it will be defeated).

Just my approach, please don’t take offence as none is intended.

I believe people quite naturally ‘fight’ in their own way and there are even parts of the human anatomy whose job it is to fight illness and infection without us even realising they are doing it. You can read thousands of technical medical articles where they use this language about how our immune system ‘fights off’ disease and infection.  So whether we like it or not, our bodies are ‘fighting illnesses’ and we cannot stop them doing it.

Your body fights without you knowing it – it’s natural.

In fact, to ‘fight’ has many contexts and not just the contrived ones used to argue against use of these metaphors. If you check the Oxford/Cambridge dictionaries (the Supreme Headquarters of the English language), you will see that ‘fight’ has numerous meanings including “to struggle to overcome, eliminate or prevent” or “to strive to achieve or do something”. What that means is that some people will use the word fight to describe the ability to get out of bed in the morning, to walk to the local shops, to go to a restaurant for a meal. Fighting to see a doctor who understands their cancer, fighting for access to the best treatment, fighting when you think someone isn’t listening. I fight cancer by writing a blog. The context is really important.

As for me, I have no intention of ceasing the use of words such as ‘fight’ and ‘battle’ in my war of words with Cancer.  It’s my way of coping.

I’m loving this article – Cancer Ninja

Read this post to know why – WHY I FIGHT

Thanks for reading.


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15 thoughts on “Opinion: Let’s attack Cancer metaphors

  • Derek

    What really annoys me is the saying what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. What a load of tosh. Keep up the work Ronny

  • Monica Dickson Hoover

    Great post Ronny I love your blog and read it all the time . We all are in this together.

  • I understand that Karen and thanks for taking the time to comment. I see Cancer as something bigger than just inside my body. Health professionals, carers and advocates also ‘fight’ Cancer. There are certain things I could do with my body which might help Cancer and I’m conscious of that. However, there are certain treatments which might be needed and could cause “collateral damage” in my body in the fight against cancer (e.g. chemo) and so I can see potential conflicts with your strategy. Your choice of words is also very interesting as (for example) ‘overcome’ is so similar to the decode of ‘fight’ in the Oxford/Cambridge dictionaries. I guess there’s a lot of personal semantics involved. My main objection is certain bloggers contriving or restricting the meaning of ‘fight’ to something ‘violent’ which according to our most trusted language sources is wrong and misleading. Thanks again.

    • Tony

      It really doesn’t matter to me which metaphor one chooses to use if it helps them to face an incredibly challenging ordeal. Although I do tend to find militaristic metaphors increasingly popular with politicians who seem to engage in their use as a way of distracting us from some very real issues. However, what prompts me to want to utilize that kind of language is when I reflect on a healthcare system that tends to put the patient last and cost first. This is compounded by an ineffective, inefficient and bureaucratic system that totally lacks compassion – as Ford of Ford motor company said he wasn’t in business to make cars – he was in business to make money. Out insurances are there to make money and NET patients tend to be very costly. This is all compounded by a healthcare system that is often uncoordinated and works in silos. Please don’t get me wrong – many individual doctors, nurses and technicians are compassionate and doing a fabulous job but the system doesn’t put the patient first. I was diagnosed 2 years ago with PNET with metastasis to many organs – it has been a considerable struggle – finding the right hospital, finding the right doctors, battling the insurance company for authorizations and getting my mess in a timely manner. Sometimes I feel like I can come to terms with the cancer but I struggle with the system that is supposed to take care of me. By the way I’m the CEO of a not-for-profit post acute healthcare provider – I’m supposed to know how the system works – my heart goes out to those who have to learn from scratch. My experiences have also led me to change practices in our own organization and confront the institutional culture that can make life so difficult for family caregivers and patients. So if we are going to “wage war” let’s do it with a system that doesn’t put the patient first. Ronny thanks for giving me the space to vent and keep up the great blog!

      • Great comments Tony, the ‘NHS’ type system vs ‘insurance based’ system has both advantages and disadvantages on both sides (I’ve been on both). Considered blogging about it a few times……… But yes, patient first all the way!

  • Karen

    Interesting blog Ronnie. Personally I never used the word “fight” as it did not sit well with me, The main reason was that I did not want to “fight” with my own body. This is the vessel we have been given in this life – so to “battle” with it for me did not seem right. I saw cancer as a chance to look at my body and see what it was telling me – to assist it to overcome a dis-ease within. Everyone has different ways of dealing with cancer, and I understand that for some people “fighting” may feel appropriate, but for me I always say I am “working with my body to surmount/overcome cancer”.

  • Great post. If I could only meet cancer in a dark alley at night. Hmmmm…..what I would do.
    You know what’s nice to think about. All the people that are on our side, rooting us on and who care about us. AND…maybe our blog posts help others! 🙂 Thanks, Ronny.

  • Well said, it is a battle, and daily we review and update our strategies on the fight we face on that particular day. How it affects our plans to allow us to move forward in the best way we can, which is dependent on the type of enemy we face at that particular point in time.

  • I alternate from using “fight” to “adventure” when I’m describing my relationship with cancer. Fight and battle are apt terms and the thought of allies, reinforcements and weapons hit the nail on the head for me too.

  • I couldn’t agree more! I often refer to my cancer “journey”, but I also fully appreciate and frequently use the more militaristic metaphors. I definitely won’t be dropping “fight” or “battle” from my cancer vocabulary!

  • Well said Ronny. .. for gods sake people really are too sensitive. What are we doing if we’re not ‘fighting’ this disease? ! Too right we’re fighting it, head on I am and will use any vocabulary I feel necessary to describe so!

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