Do we need to end the ‘war’ on cancer?

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oncology news australiaDavid Hauser and Richard Wassersug – The Guardian.

We use so much militaristic language to describe cancer. It might be doing more harm than good.

Fight cancer. Beat cancer. Stand up to cancer. Aggressive militant language pervades discourse on the illness. Yet it is questionable whether there is a health benefit in conceiving of cancer as a monolithic enemy. Not only has the military motif not led to a cure for the disease, but it may actually be detrimental to our health.

When people label cancer as an enemy, preventative behaviours that involve limitation and restraint – such as eating less red meat and not smoking – get disregarded or dismissed because fighting involves little self-control. We conceptualise war as a situation in which we have no choice but to engage a hostile force that must be attacked in order to be stopped. Self-limitation is not part of that equation.

Recent research suggests that these metaphors can indeed backfire. In one study, researchers asked healthy volunteers to list behaviors that they’d be willing to change to prevent cancer. Some of the participants had been randomly exposed to combative language about cancer, while others had not.

One group was asked: “What things would you do to fight against developing cancer?”, whereas the other group was asked: “What things would you do to reduce your risk of developing cancer?” Researchers observed an interesting difference in the responses they received: the group exposed to combat metaphors listed significantly fewer self-control preventative behaviours.

In another study, participants read about colorectal cancer and were randomly assigned to be exposed to enemy metaphors or not. For one group, the information they were given described the disease as an “enemy uprising of abnormal cellular growth”. For the other group, it described the disease as involving “abnormal cellular growth”. After reading the message, participants indicated how much they intended to limit cancer-risk behaviors, such as excessive consumption of alcohol, red meats, and high fat and high calorie foods. The group exposed to enemy metaphors had less intention to lessen risky behaviors.

But war metaphors don’t only discourage folks from taking steps to avoid getting cancer – they may also be bad for those already diagnosed.

If one can only overcome cancer by “fighting”, then what does that imply about those who die from it? …read more.


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The ONA Editor curates oncology news, views and reviews from Australia and around the world for our readers. In aggregated content, original sources will be acknowledged in the article footer.

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