First Words

Cancer is a struggle, not a battle

3 reasons the warfare metaphor is problematic

I don’t have cancer—at least there’s no indication of such from recent scans and tests. But I sometimes think I live with cancer, surrounded as I am by so many parishioners who live with the anxiety of rogue cells and unwanted tumors messing with their bodies. Over the past three decades of ministry, I’ve met hundreds of people who’ve taught me what it’s like to lose the sense of personal autonomy, discover how much food can taste like metal, poke awkwardly around websites like, and continually learn about new cocktails that have nothing to do with happy hour. I’ve also learned how people with cancer often speak of their disease.

Far and away the favorite metaphor for addressing cancer involves language of combat. One’s body is the battlefield. The oncology unit serves as a base camp. The fight becomes one of total war. When the obituary finally appears online and the eulogy is composed, we learn that Jane “lost her battle with cancer.” All this aggressive warrior language may predate Richard Nixon’s 1971 declaration of “war against cancer,” but it certainly has blossomed in popularity since.

Several problems come to mind with this warfare imagery. First, it leaves the patient with only one of two possible outcomes—victory or defeat. That seems hardly right. Death becomes the personal failure of those patients who (evidently) didn’t fight valiantly enough.