Another Reason to Stop Describing Cancer With War Metaphors

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The idea that a person “fights” or “battles” cancer is meant to be motivational for patients, but, recently, some have started to question whether the use of these war metaphors can cause inadvertent harm. If some people “win the battle,” as Peter B. Bach pointed out in a piece for the Cut earlier this year, then does that imply that the thousands who “lose” simply didn’t fight hard enough? This week, a new University of Michigan study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin offers another reason to resist using these metaphors: They may have a negative effect on some basic cancer-prevention behaviors.

A team led by UM doctoral student David Hauser asked 313 volunteers to read a description of colorectal cancer; some of the passages contained war metaphors like “enemy uprising,” while others featured drier descriptions without war metaphors. The volunteers were then asked to rate how likely they were to engage in certain cancer-prevention habits, like limiting alcohol and red meat, and they found that the people who’d been primed with the war metaphors were less likely to say they’d act according to the preventive measures. 

These findings suggest that words like “enemy” or “fight” (tested in a separate experiment) emphasize aggression, and so they may cause people to place less importance on proven cancer-prevention measures that are more aligned with restraint, Hauser and colleagues say in the release for their new paper. While it’s always tricky to apply findings from a laboratory study to the messy real world, combining this study with Bach’s argument certainly makes a good case for ditching the martial metaphors.