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Why Cancer Isn't a "War"

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When you talk about cancer, what do you say? That someone 'lost' their battle with cancer? That they're 'fighting' for their lives? That they 'conquered' the disease? Your comments aren't helping, says new research published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin—and some current and former cancer patients agree. It may not be easy to break this vernacular, but it's important. War language—using words like battle, combat, survive, enemy, lose, and win—may influence the understanding of cancer and how people respond to it, according to study authors. In fact, their results suggest that enemy metaphors for cancer can be potentially harmful for public health. (See 6 Things You Didn't Know About Breast Cancer)

“There’s a delicate line,” says Geralyn Lucas, a writer and former television producer who has written two books about her own experience with breast cancer. "I want every woman to use language that speaks to her, but when my newest book came out, Then Came Life, I didn't want any of that language on my cover," she says. "I didn't win or lose...my chemo worked. And I don't feel comfortable saying I beat it, because I didn't have anything to do with it. It had less to do with me and more to do with my cell type," she explains.

"Retrospectively, I don't think the majority of the people around me use or used fighting words, or implied this was a win/lose situation," says Jessica Oldwyn, who writes about having a brain tumor or her personal blog. But she says that some of her friends with cancer absolutely abhor war words used to describe cancer. "I understand that the fighting terminology puts a lot of pressure on those who are already under insurmountable stress to be successful in a David and Goliath type of situation. But I see the other side too: that it's incredibly hard to know what to say when talking with someone with cancer." Regardless, Oldwyn says engaging in a dialog with someone who has cancer and listening to them helps them feel supported. "Start with gentle questions and see where it goes from there," she advises. "And please remember that even when we're done with treatments, we're never truly finished. It lingers every day, the fear of cancer resurfacing. The fear of death."

Mandi Hudson also writes about her experience with breast cancer on her blog Darn Good Lemonade and agrees that while she herself is not partial to war language to speak about someone with cancer, she understands why people speak in those terms. "Treatment is tough," she says. "When you're done with treatment you need something to celebrate, something to call it, some way to say 'I did this, it was awful—but here I am!'" Despite that, "I am not sure I want people to ever say I lost my battle with breast cancer, or I lost the fight. It sounds like I didn’t try hard enough," she admits.

Still, others can find this language comforting. "This type of talk does not give Lauren a bad feeling," says Lisa Hill, mother of 19-year-old Lauren Hill, a basketball player at Mount St. Joseph's University who was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare and incurable form of brain cancer. "She is at war with a brain tumor. She sees her self as fighting for her life, and she is a DIPG warrior fighting for all the kids affected," says Lisa Hill. In fact, Lauren has chosen to spend her final days 'fighting' for others, by raising money for The Cure Starts Now foundation through her website.

"The problem with the warring mentality is that there are winners and losers, and because you lost your war on cancer, it doesn’t mean that you are a failure," says Sandra Haber, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in cancer management (who also had cancer herself). "It’s like running a marathon," she says. "If you finished, you still won, even if you didn't get the best time. If we just said either 'you won' or 'you didn’t win', we would lose so much in that process. It would really negate all of the energy and work and aspirations. It’s a success, not a win. Even for someone who is dying, they can still be successful. It doesn’t make them any less admirable."

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