War – The Mother of all Metaphors in Cancer Discourse

This month we are publishing Medical Discourse in Professional, Academic and Popular Settings edited by Pilar Ordóñez-López and Nuria Edo-Marzá. This post debates whether some of the metaphors used to discuss cancer are more appropriate than others.

Medical Discourse in Professional, Academic and Popular SettingsCancer metaphors are not new. However, they still spur interest among researchers, patients, families and doctors. Are some metaphors more appropriate than others? Their use helps to create our mental image of the immensely diverse group of diseases we understand as cancer. In the same way, nonetheless, they can provide an excessively simplified or negative image of treatments.

While some studies have been critical of war metaphors for decades, others prefer to consider the validity of metaphors regarding their usefulness for the experience of each patient. While some patients can be encouraged to deal with the disease in terms of battling, others can suffer if they see themselves as the losers in a fight after doing their best. Therefore, some patients or professionals prefer to refer to cancer with other metaphors such “the disease as a journey”.

Two chapters in this new book, Medical Discourse in Professional, Academic and Popular Settings, address cancer metaphors from different perspectives. The first reviews metaphors used in a particular cancer type, lymphoma caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), through the analysis of texts of different genres: research papers, science news and press articles. The most formal genre, the research article, reduces metaphor usage while press authors exploit metaphors more deliberately for discursive and argumentative purposes.

The next chapter focuses on analysing the case of the two FC Barcelona figures who were diagnosed with cancer, the player Eric Abidal and the manager Tito Vilanova. It concludes that the journalistic discourse on the disease, even in a sport context, is still dominated by the war metaphor. Although the two figures often used sport metaphors publicly (“I know I’m not playing this match alone”), as did the media (“Tito faces his most difficult match”, “Vilanova plays the hardest competition, cancer, against the worst rival, death”) war metaphors were predominant.

There are similarities between war and sport metaphors (two opposing teams, the battle/match, the winners/champions), but there are also differences. The losers in war are captured, humiliated, even killed. The loser in a football match may have the feeling of having played better than the opponent or think that they were just unlucky. The media collect different metaphors and sanction them through use. As we can see, although new metaphors are introduced and enjoy general acceptance in certain contexts, as happens with the sport metaphor, military alternatives are still the mother of metaphors when discussing cancer.

This interesting debate shows how to face the challenge of defining such a complex disease, one that scares us, a disease described by Dr. Siddhartha Mujkerhee – using a new metaphor – as “the emperor of all maladies”.

 English in Medical EducationFor further information about this book, please see our website. You might also be interested in English in Medical Education edited by Peih-ying Lu and John Corbett.

2 Responses to War – The Mother of all Metaphors in Cancer Discourse

  1. Very interesting reviews. Both the war or the sports metaphors could lead to two options only: either you are a winer, victorious and great, or you are a loser, and you could feel humiliated and miserable.
    It seems to me war and sports metaphors are useful in medical discourse because they help to justify the fact that modern medicine can fail, the use of this tropes then would place some agency and responsability to other external factors such as “bad luck”, or “bad weather conditions”, or worst, to the patient “bad training”, or “bad attitude”.
    I think this might be a reason why these metaphors are so widely use in cancer disease treatments, not only in physician-patient interaction, but also in medicine products advertisements.
    Thanks for sharing!
    LB

  2. […] month, after reading a short book review on the topic, it came to my mind that when the medical industry uses these tropes, patients are automatically […]

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