Cancerous Metaphors: How Our Words Influence Cancer Treatment

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Carolina Abboud, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ
Physicians and scientists have long used metaphors to describe the mysterious disease of cancer. Such metaphors include a crab that gnaws on the body and a plant that takes root in tissues, among others. In depth analysis shows that those metaphors influenced the way physicians conceptualized the disease and treated their patients. To investigate how cancer metaphors have changed over the course of the twentieth century, literature from the twentieth century was analyzed to determine which metaphors were popular and if those metaphors reflected the changing scientific understanding of cancer as a disease. The analysis included physicians’ memoirs, patient memoirs, nonfiction, and fiction literature. Any metaphors found within were sorted into categories, some of which emerged as more popular than the others. Various metaphors found included creature or monster metaphors, gang metaphors, villain, machine, poison, plague, and war metaphors. Those of the last category, war metaphors, were by far the most common. “Battling,” “fighting,” “winning,” and “losing” were words often used when discussing peoples’ experiences with cancer, so often that they did not seem to register to authors as metaphoric. Patients were “soldiers,” doctors “generals,” and treatments “weapons.”  This study found that war metaphors increased in popularity around times of war, particularly World War II as seen in public health posters at the time. An analysis of the twentieth century corpus of Google Books revealed that the phrase “war on cancer” spiked around 1971, when President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, and increased steadily after. Currently, war metaphors are the most common vehicles for describing cancer unscientifically. Further research will include evaluating whether or not the increase in war metaphors correlates with an increase in the intensity of cancer treatment. Preliminary results indicate a positive relationship between war metaphors and intense chemotherapies, as well as aggressive reactions to even minor diagnoses, such as a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ in a woman’s breast, the so-called stage zero of breast cancer. If war metaphors do influence the way cancer is medically treated, then changing the way the medical community describes cancer could change the way physicians treat cancer, opening up new avenues for treatment that may be more successful in saving lives.