Language holding court in the dark halls of fear

Cancer is depicted as an alien invader or a cellular mutiny that occurs when a rouge cell refuses to decommission when faulty or at the end of its lifecycle. Once your immunity defences have been breached, it quickly becomes a series of battles in a war with reduced odds of survival.

Recently a University of Michigan study involving 313 people explored the impact of the selection of metaphors that are often used by the medical profession when referring to cancer.  Fight and battle are among the top 10 verbs used to describe cancer.

I remember hurtling, face first into the sticky grey mist of opinions and damned statistics, desperately trying to weigh up treatment options and while attending multiple specialist appointments that were booked as a matter of protocol rather than user choice.

I had boarded the roller coaster ride that was often cheerily described as a ‘journey’. I vehemently rebelled at the use of this metaphor to describe my new reality. I met others during my experience with cancer, who felt the same.

Is it cynical to suggest that the use of such metaphors supports more aggressive treatments, like blasting the alien invader with high-dose chemotherapy or radiotherapy? Are you simply frightened into treatments by the use of language?

The findings of the University of Michigan, confirmed that the metaphors that are used by the medical profession, in a large part influence how people perceive disease and the treatments to use in defense and in the preventive actions to take, to avoid the disease.

This is of particular interest in the case of early detection which often results in smaller cancer tumours and lesions. There is a defining dash between small lesions, that require no chemotherapy and those larger than 1 cm. I sat perfectly on the borderline. So out came to use of descriptors of ‘high grade’, and ‘triple negative’ to encourage me to undergo chemotherapy.  I sought a second opinion, which is akin to seeking guidance about sexual abuse from the Catholic Church. My original regime was altered though, and after dose one of the ‘big guns’, I ended up in hospital for 5 days fighting for my life.

As a wordsmith, I am acutely aware of the use of language to emotionally manipulate and to support arguments. My questioning of the ethical use of such metaphors by my specialists, did not win me any friends or favours. I believe however, that truth and intent is often found like crumbs, left behind, from the words that are spoken.

A measured approach that incorporates life style changes, including nutritional strategies of low sugar/low fat diets and the cessation of smoking,  alcohol/ pharmaceutical drug intake and the uptake of exercise, meditation and quality sleep, is the complementary approach to any surgical intervention. Yet, when cancer is depicted as war, battles are lost and won, survivors are born scarred by the experience, warriors are immortalised or vanquished, and the machine of medicine has a narrative that supports the current modalities of the pharmaceutical industry.


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