Let’s stop fighting cancer.

The language of how we talk about cancer is unhelpful to the mental health burden of undergoing treatment of the same illness.

Battle metaphors and cancer are a disingenuous mix. I’d like to invite us all to give that side of things a rest.

Today, I woke up to a deeply sad message from Alex Trebek, delivered in his trademark calm and classy fashion, where he announces he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer:

The video of Alex Trebek announcing he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, posted on Twitter.

I wish him all the best and I hope he is able to heal and recover quickly, so he can continue to fulfill his contract to the show for another three years, as he drily quips in the video.

The language of cancer

As you’ve probably observed if someone close to you is being treated for cancer, the treatment regime has two, often three, aspects. The most obvious aspect is the physical — surgeries, radiation, chemo, drugs; the whole medical machinery rolling into action. The second is the psychological — how the patient is able to face the incredibly difficult mental journey they embark on as they contemplate their own mortality and the illness itself. And finally, there’s the spiritual/religious element that plays an important part for many.

The language often used around the treatment of cancer might be helpful for the tactical aspects of cancer — the medical side of the treatment. But for the two others, it is problematic.

Trebek says “I’m going to fight this,” and “I plan to beat this disease,” and “We will win”. I fully understand the sentiment; he’s about to roll up his sleeves and do everything he can to get healthy again.

The language of cancer is the language of war.

While Trebek’s language is relatively mild, it hints at something that is pretty common in our society: The language of cancer is the language of war. It’s ‘the battle against cancer.” We hear “I’m going to kick Cancer’s ass.” It is “I will fight.”

The top reply to Trebek’s post is a great joke — but also relies on fighting metaphors.

The problem with this type of language is that wars have a loser, and while humans have some somewhat sophisticated anti-cancer weaponry on our side, cancer is a formidable foe.

As a patient, you’re about to disappear into a foxhole with dozens of cancer-weapon-wielding doctors who don’t always agree on how to treat you, a bewildering jungle of information available to you on the internet and in the medical literature, and a dawning realization that as a species, we’re not as proficient at curing cancer as we’d like to admit to ourselves.

All of which is to say… When people who are diagnosed with cancer take on the war metaphors, it is reassuring to those around them. “Oh, good. Alex is a man with access to great health care, and he’s going to fight hard. He has a” — dare I say it — “fighting chance.”

I don’t know Trebek, but I do know that most people I know who are diagnosed with cancer are facing a battle at three fronts: Spiritual, mental, and medical. My problem with the language of war is that it is only potentially helpful on the medical side. To mental health and spirituality, war metaphors are anathema and deeply counter-productive.

Facing mortality

When we are talking about cancer as a ‘fight,’ it is problematic because if it looks like someone might fail to recover from the illness, they started the treatment process by promising to ‘fight’, and they put the responsibility to win on themselves.

It’s a very short step from realizing that you are losing the ‘battle’ against cancer, to blaming yourself for not ‘fighting hard enough’.

They promised to fight. They were going to war. They were going to beat this. If things do not go to plan — and they often do not — it has a tremendous psychological impact on the patient. They are being let down by their doctors with dwindling prognoses and deserted spiritually because it turns out the prayers didn’t work as well as they might have. And now, as they are feeling the weakest they have in their whole lives due to a combination of the illness itself and the treatment thereof, the language of war is doing real mental health damage. It’s a very short step from realizing that you are losing the ‘battle’ against cancer, to blaming yourself for not ‘fighting hard enough’.

Undergoing cancer treatment is hard enough without having to blame yourself for it potentially not working. I would like to invite us all to stop using the language of war when it comes to medicine. It is unfair to expect of people to ‘fight’ or ‘battle’ or ‘beat’ a disease that has claimed a great number of human lives — especially as you’re already weakened from the very illness you’re fighting.

Let’s leave the door to self-forgiveness ajar, and leave the war metaphors safely locked away.