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Using War Metaphors to Describe Cancer Hurts Patients

We use words like "fight" and "battle" when we talk about cancer, as if it's an enemy we can conquer if we're strong enough. But a study shows this kind of thought may hurt chances of people taking preventative measures.

Cancer survivors in the media talk about fighting against this disease and winning, but recent research says these war metaphors are doing more harm than good. Justin Worland of Time points to a study that shows linking cancer to war themes may hurt chances of prevention, which could mean the difference between someone taking the right steps to get treatment or waiting till it’s too late.

Words are powerful and when you give something as frightening as cancer words like “hostile” and “fight” doctors may be giving ammunition to the “enemy” instead of patients. These trigger words get attention, but when it comes to influencing people to limit their risk of getting the disease, the war metaphors fail to make an impact.

In the study, set to be published in the January issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers gave several groups of participants different messages about cancer with different buzz words, and then measured the influence they had. They found that groups showed no signs of reducing bad habits, like smoking, drinking, or eating red meat, when words like “hostile” and “fight” were used. What’s more, any use of war-like metaphors had no effect on changing patients’ intentions on seeking-out more aggressive treatments.

“Overall, these results suggest that enemy metaphors in cancer information reduce some prevention intentions without increasing others, making their use potentially harmful for public health.”

Led author David Hauser of University of Michigan explains that these words exaggerate the reality of cancer as an active battle that requires constant attention. This kind of thinking makes people shut down—opting for doing nothing rather than doing something simple (i.e. going to the doctor or cutting back on the beef).

“When you frame cancer as an enemy, that forces people to think about active engagement and attack behaviors as a way to effectively deal with cancer. That dampens how much people think about much they should limit and restrain themselves.”

Hauser does have a suggestion for the media to keep people aware and safe:

“What would be more beneficial would be changing the sorts of stories about cancer out there to expose aspects of the disease that don’t fit with this enemy conceptualization.”

Cancer is a disease that’s not so much about fighting and winning, but about taking steps and hoping for the best. It’s all part of the journey called life. So, while it may sound nice to put a glorified spin on a disease, the media has to understand that’s not what people always need.

Read more at Time

Photo Credit: Zurijeta/Shutterstock


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