Cancer- Reframing War Analogies and Why Language Matters

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The good news on cancer trends is a movement toward it being a chronic disease versus a terminal diagnosis. However, in common parlance cancer of often framed around “battles” and “beating cancer.” Data suggests that by 2030, the largest group of people living with cancer will be survivors or those living with it as a chronic disease. This begs the question about the language we use to talk about cancer – are war and battle analogies helpful for those undergoing treatment for cancer? Does it make people more vigilant for the prevention of disease?

A new paper by David Hauser published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examines the use of framing prevention and treatment of cancer using battle analogies. Metaphor and analogy are useful instruments to explain complex ideas in common parlance. For example, we often hear bladder issues being described in terms of plumbing metaphors. Hauser argues that using battle analogies no longer serve us well when addressing cancer. Framing cancer as a battle may lead to fatalistic attitude and beliefs which hamper treatment and progress. These metaphors may also encourage people to feel powerless about prevention. Many studies show the value of a healthy diet, stress management, and not smoking as vital elements in preventing cancer.

Conversely, framing disease as a battle may also mean people are scanning for changes in their bodily functions. Regular screening increases the likelihood cancer will be caught and treated at an earlier stage. The author conducted four different studies with sample sizes of over 200 people in each study to ensure the statistical validity of the results.

Each study used a vignette to describe a person’s cancer journey; participants then completed a survey about their perspectives on the story. Survey items explored treatment length, how much control the individual had over their treatment outcomes, and how much effort they would exert to address their cancer. The authors varied the scenarios using different word pairs like “battle/road” and “fight/travel” to juxtapose the war metaphors.

Findings suggested that overall framing cancer as a battle increases the perception that a difficult journey lies ahead for the person seeking cancer treatment. The risk here is people have felt helpless and less likely to find health information to manage their condition. Findings also suggest more fatalistic beliefs with battle framing versus that of a journey. People were not more likely to be vigilant regarding cancer when battle metaphors were used. Often the very intent of using battle metaphors is to motivate people to take action regarding prevention or early detection.

Given the trends towards survivorship; the time seems right to reconsider how we address cancer to be inclusive of prevention, early detection, and treatment. Empowered treatment plans that support the individual and their support networks are the future of care.

Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)



The war on prevention II: Battle metaphors undermine cancer treatment and prevention and do not increase vigilance.

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