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How We Talk About Cancer

Posted 10/5/2015

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  How we talk about cancer is quite different from the ways we talk about most other things. Appreciating that this is simplistic, I have a rotten cold today and am feeling pretty terrible. It always surprises me how badly a cold can make you/me feel, but we don't have a particular vocabulary for this very common illness. Did you ever hear anyone comment on the war with sneezes or my journey with a cold? Nope, neither did I.

  With cancer, however, the metaphors abound. This is a recent study from the UK that looked at what is most commonly said, how it feels to different people:

May I take your metaphor? – how we talk about cancer
“The war on cancer rages on”. “It’s the start of a long journey”. “I feel like I’m on a carousel that won’t let
me get off”. “I’m on the road to recovery”. “She lost the fight”. “We will beat cancer sooner.”
Whether you’re a patient, a carer, a fundraiser or a doctor – talking about cancer almost invariably means
using metaphors.
But is one metaphor better than another? And how do different metaphors affect different people?
That’s the question Professor Elena Semino, a linguist from Lancaster University, has spent the last few
years trying to figure out.
Her team’s recent study examined how metaphors are used in different groups of people affected by
cancer – cancer patients, family carers and health care professionals – and how they resonated with them.
Drawing on a dataset of 1.5 million words, collected from interviews and online forums, what Semino
found was really quite interesting – as she told us at a recent talk.
Battles and journeys
The two most common metaphors her analysis uncovered are what she termed “violence” metaphors –fights, battles wars, etc, – and “journey” metaphors.


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