‘Battle’ language offensive

Love Wendy Harmer? So do we.

Listen to her no-nonsense discussion about cancer with Darren Saunders, cancer biologist at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

And here’s some of the transcript…..

“The language that we use around talking about cancer, whether we’re talking about other people or even patients themselves, or the people treating them is really fraught.”

“There’s this notion – which I detest…of a ‘battle'” Darren Saunders 
“How can we say it better? ” Wendy Harmer

“And there’s this notion – which I detest and a lot of people who’ve been through cancer really detest – this notion of a ‘battle’. Or this kind of framing of the thing as like a war or a battle, or ‘You survived this thing.’

“And if you somehow die of the disease then you’ve lost the battle and you didn’t fight hard enough. I think that’s toxic.”

“How can we say it better?”

“I don’t know. Everybody has their own favourite way of doing it. I just think that particular notion, which is historical, is really for a lot of people quite distressing and upsetting.

“Because there’s this inherent implication there that the person who dies hasn’t fought hard enough and they just didn’t want to defeat the disease hard enough and that’s why they died from it.”

And that can be really upsetting and toxic for a lot of people.”

“So stop saying ‘battle with cancer’.”

“Yes. Let’s get rid of that term altogether, that would be fantastic if we could do that.”

Wendy and Darren are not the first to think this way of course. Susan Sontag wrote about the problems of language and illness in her 1978 book Illness as a Metaphor. She writes that metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, increase the suffering of the patients and can prevent them from seeking proper treatment.

‘Almost a decade later, with the outbreak of a new, stigmatised disease replete with mystifications and punitive metaphors, Sontag wrote Aids and Its Metaphors, extending the argument of the earlier book to the AIDS pandemic’, says Amazon, which is still selling both of these important works.

This extension of the military metaphor and HIV/AIDS is the subject of the article Healing Without Waging War: Beyond Military Metaphors in Medicine and HIV Cure Research. It examines language and symbolism as potentially problematic when used to express scientific ideas within emerging health-related fields.

In fact, the use of military metaphors and language has even snuck into Scott Morrison’s pandemic vernacular described as ‘a mission we are battling’ and ‘a fight we have to win’.

As much as we love Wendy Harmer another comedian we love is Billy Connolly who laughs in the face of death while living with prostate cancer.


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