“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.