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Be Careful of the Language

Posted 1/12/2015

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  In spite of, or maybe because of, having grown up in a military family, I have always loathed the war/battle language around cancer. Where did it begin anyway? From Wikipedia: The War on Cancer refers to the effort to find a cure for cancer by increased research to improve the understanding of cancer biology and the development of more effective cancer treatments, such as targeted drug therapies. The aim of such efforts is to eradicate cancer as a major cause of death. The signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971 by then U.S. President Richard Nixon is generally viewed as the beginning of the war on cancer, though it was not described as a "war" in the legislation itself.

  I dislike all the associations with a war and soldiers and battles and explosions and blood and guts and victories or losses. That may be the part I most dislike: the suggestions that if you fight long enough and hard enough, you will be victorious. And, if you should fail at the battle and die, it must somehow be your own fault. There is more common cancer language that is equally distressing. The most frequent example is this: Ms. X failed Taxol. Now, it seems pretty obvious to me that Ms. X did not do the failing; the drug failed her. One of our young doctors is always very careful to phrase his notes that way, and it is a clear indication of why his patients so love him.

  This is an interesting article from Medscape about the war metaphors. It suggests, not surprisingly, that it is effective for some people, but not for most. I will give you the start and then a link to read more. And then, if you can spare a few more minutes, I will add a link to a wonderful essay on the same subject,

Does 'War on Cancer' Metaphor Cause Casualties?
Roxanne Nelson

Cancer is frequently referred to as a war zone, where patients engage in heroic battles against an insidious enemy. However, the popular war metaphor can have negative health implications, according to experts.
For example, the war metaphor is particularly ill-suited for prevention, according to the authors of a new study. And it can leave patients whose cancer progresses feeling defeated and depressed, says a clinician expert.
But although the war metaphor has great limitations, it should not be entirely disposed of because it does motivate some patients, according these sources.
Impairing Prevention Strategies
A report on the potential negative consequences of the metaphor was published in the January issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
David Hauser, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Norbert Schwarz, PhD, provost professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, conducted three studies. They found that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom that framing cancer as a feared enemy will motivate patients, enemy metaphors can have unintended adverse effects that can impair efficient prevention strategies.
Many of the behaviors that can reduce the risk for cancer, such as smoking cessation, limiting the intake of red meat and alcohol, and forgoing sunbathing, require a person to limit activities that they may find enjoyable. None of these fit well with a war metaphor, the authors note; limiting and constraining oneself is a concept that is not associated with battling an aggressive
enemy. "The metaphor alone does not make you do one thing or another by itself," Dr Schwarz noted. "It influences how plausible a recommendation seems and how intuitively appealing it is to follow through on," he told Medscape Medical News.
"Recommendations that go with the dominant metaphor seem more natural and plausible than recommendations that go against the dominant metaphor."

And do read and savor:


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