Language and Cancer: What to say, what not to say

“If some metaphors can lock you in enemy territory, others can be a key to help understand what is happening to you. They can be both oppressive and transformative.” So ends an essay by Neil Small, “After the Battle, Journeys with Cancer: Changing Metaphors of Illness”

A few months ago, I went down to the county courthouse and watched a CCTV event hosted by the Hospice Foundation of America entitled, “Living with Grief: Cancer and End-of-Life Care.” It was a good few hours, and I learned a lot.

A book of the same name was published in conjunction with the event. Neil Small’s article on the metaphors we use when speaking of cancer was probably the most immediately helpful. Neil draws significantly on Susan Sontag’s book “Illness as Metaphor” in which she apparently argues against metaphoric thinking when dealing with disease. But as Neil and Sontag acknowledge, metaphors are all over our disease speak like white on rice.

Sorry. Seriously, though, here’s two takeaways from the article.

1.   Though use of battle language can be helpful for some patients and families, it might be difficult even harmful for others. For example, if someone’s cancer is incurable, then speaking in terms of “winning the battle” or “fight” or “war” is just not helpful. In fact, it totally misrepresents the situation. This is not to say that battle language might be helpful for some in some circumstances, but to be aware of its inherent danger.

2.  An alternative, and perhaps more helpful metaphor, is that of journey or walk. It is a metaphor that can incorporate the ups and downs of cancer treatment, and is able to be used by patient and family alike. As a pastor, I found it a helpful metaphor as it allows me to speak of heaven and death as an arrival, a destination, rather than something to avoid at all costs.

The article is much more complex than this, but those are the takeaways: battle language can be quite problematic, journey language is more likely helpful.


  1. Joan Calvin says:

    Having had cancer, I ito say it is a daunting experience.Please don’t tell people to have a “good” attitude. Attitude has little n,or no effect on outcome. Cancer is a random event. It seems we are searching for reasons and then it looks as if we are blaming the victim. My suggestion is to talk less and listen more. If you listen, then you will hear the words to use with each person experiencing this illness, which may be very different for each one.

  2. Marvin Miller says:

    Sorry, I do not have a comment on the above topic, but this seemed to be the only way that I could get a comment to you about another topic.

    This morning my wife and I used your devotional from”These Days”, entitled, “Express Your Love”. Thank you for your contribution. But I have one comment/question about the statement, “Three chapters later, we read that John is killed. Did Jesus know John would soon die? We will never know.” I am surprised that you would say that about Jesus, the Son of God, the Omniscient One. When did Jesus become all- knowing? Or, in your thinking, is he, was he not a part of the God-head, the Trinity when on earth?

    The Gospels refer often to Jesus, “knowing their thoughts”, “knowing all things”, etc, I am wondering how you interpret those scriptures, and how that would relate to the thought expressed in your devotional?

  3. Hey Marvin. Thanks for the question. For others’ sake, he’s commenting on a devotion (or set of devotions) I wrote for

    The question of Jesus’ knowledge in the gospels is a tricky one. Yes, there are places were Jesus seems to know more than any others — when he knows of the many infidelities of the woman at the well, when he knows how to feed the 5,000 — but there are other circumstances that suggest he is far from omniscient.

    For example, Luke 2:52 says Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature (or, other translations say “knowledge”). John’s gospel is probably the one in which Jesus is most knowledgable, but even there Jesus “learns” (John 4:1) and asks questions he seems now to know the answer to.

    So what’s at stake here? For me, it’s important that Jesus doesn’t know all, for that speaks to his humanness. If Jesus was not fully human and did not experience the challenges of humanity than the whole point of the incarnation seems lost to me. Like me, like you, like all of us, Jesus was tempted as a human and lived as one of us. But he was different, too, he had a certain connection with God, he was fully divine as well, and he lived in ways we could never dream of.

    For me, I rest just as much in the fact that Jesus was fully human — and the lack of knowledge and challenges that entails — as in the fully God truth as well. So in the devotion, I think I was just playing with that side of things for a bit.

    Thanks for your comments, Marvin. Have a great day.

Leave a Reply