“Fighting cancer”.

We see or hear these words every day.

Former England cricket captain Tony Greig used them to describe his diagnosis: “Vivian (his wife) and I are going to put the boxing gloves on and fight this like we’ve never fought anything before.”

Fellow commentator Ian Healy said, “It’s terrible, but one thing he is though, is tough”, in a News Ltd. article describing Greig’s “battle”.


Former cricketer, Tony Greig, image via newstribe.com.

 But are military metaphors the healthiest way to describe a diagnosis?

In 1971, US President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer” by boosting government funding for research; more than forty years later President Barack Obama committed to “waging a war against cancer as aggressive as the war cancer wages against us”.

While few would argue against a financial fight, scientists question the language labelling the illness. They say it sets up a false expectation within the patient – and society.

“A war is by its nature a time-limited event, in which there’s a defined end point. If we’re still fighting for 40 years, then that implies failure,” medical oncologist and cancer epidemiologist Dr. Alfred Neugut told marketplace.org

As Sally Gritten wrote in her moving article, Living with Cancer, Fighting the Cliches, “People have told me how ‘brave’ I am. Does that mean the ones who died should have ‘put up a better fight’? Could they have ‘faced down the enemy’? If they died, did that mean the disease ‘won’ and they ‘lost’?”

When Mum was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 13 years ago she said, “I will beat this bloody thing”.

She visualised the healthy cells smashing the cancerous ones. In her mind, the battle-lines were drawn; she would emerge victorious.

But the cancer was terminal. The doctors gave her seven months. She died on deadline.

In the end, Mum couldn’t believe she had “lost” her “battle”. She was a strong woman, winning workplace “wars” with aplomb, how could she come out second best in the “fight of her life”?

After working in Oncology for nine months, nurse “Jess” says hearing the words “fighting cancer” is “worse than nails on a chalkboard (or) squeaky glass”.

“Cancer is not a game, a contest, a marathon, or even a physical opponent. You cannot ball up your fist and knock it out.”

She feels compassion for those find succour in such semantics.

Everyone is different. Whatever gets you through. But it shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

The military metaphor is inaccurate because the enemy is you: the cancerous cells in your body. In a battle you train to fight; Nothing can prepare you for this. And it doesn’t matter how well resourced your army is, cancer doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor.

One oncologist, speaking as part of a panel discussion entitled Cancer as Metaphor, regrets talking about “winning” or “beating”.

“I do think, when it doesn’t go well, that you add to a sense of failure,” he told The Oncologist website.

He remembers one patient who was about to move to a hospice after eight years of treatment.

“I turned to her and said, ‘Listen, are we still going to keep fighting this thing, or are we just going to change the nature of the fight and the nature of this battle?’ The minute the words came out, I realised that was not the way I wanted to say (it).”

He believes we need to balance the instinct to fight, with words of healing and acceptance.

Some say we should remove metaphors altogether.

In her seminal work, Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes, “The most truthful way of regarding illness… is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking”.

I disagree. Words matter.

People grappling with a diagnosis need images, analogies, and symbols to better understand their illness.

But it doesn’t always have to be a battle.

In the words of Sally Gritten, “I am not sharing this as a blueprint or a signpost. I am simply offering an alternative to the metaphors of war for people who are experiencing serious illness, replacing the stark dualities of ‘win/lose’, ‘right/wrong’ and ‘good/bad’ with language that is open and allows for more nuance. It may not work for everyone; we all find our own ways. These are mine”.


What do you think, is there a better metaphor for dealing with cancer?




Dear Mr Sexist

Life’s Too Short To Be Busy

Time to Pull The Plug On Alan Jones

Please, Can I Give Some More?


*Tracey Spicer is a respected journalist who has worked for many years in radio, print and television.
Channel Nine and 10 news presenter and reporter; 2UE and Vega broadcaster; News Ltd. columnist; Sky News anchor …it’s been a dream career for the Brisbane schoolgirl with a passion for news and current affairs.
Tracey is a passionate advocate for issues as diverse as voluntary euthanasia, childhood vaccinations, breastfeeding, better regulation of foreign investment in Australia’s farmland, and curtailed opening hours for pubs and clubs. She is an Ambassador for World Vision, ActionAid, WWF, the Royal Hospital for Women’s Newborn Care Centre and the Penguin Foundation, Patron of Cancer Council NSW and The National Premmie Foundation, and the face of the Garvan Institute’s research into pancreatic cancer, which killed her beloved mother Marcia 11 years ago. But Tracey’s favourite job, with her husband, is bringing up two beautiful children – six-year-old Taj and five-year-old Grace. Visit Tracey’s website at www.spicercommunications.biz or follow her on Twitter @spicertracey.


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  • Reply October 23, 2012


    I think war is a pretty poor metaphor for anything, really. But as a cancer survivor and a chemist, I have two pet hate uses for war metaphors. The one described above, for any life-threatening illness, including cancer, because it is brutal and insensitive. And for describing chemical reactions, because it is just dumb and useless.

  • Reply October 23, 2012

    Susan Handes

    Thanks so much for this article Tracey. I have been living with breast cancer since 2003, at least that was when I was initially diagnosed.

    My journey has been mostly silent because I have chosen not to have chemotherapy or radiation. I chose to have a mastectomy earlier this year and am glad I did that. I felt it wasn’t right for me before then though.

    None of the support services attract me as I am not fighting a battle. I often wonder how many people like me are out there, making similar choices. I am not brave as some have suggested. I have done my research and made my choices.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    Tracey, thanks for putting into words what I often think. I have started to cringe every time I hear the phrase ‘battle with cancer’. It does imply that those who succumb didn’t fight hard enough or didn’t have the mental willpower. Some cancers are just too virulent and too advanced. The most advanced treatments and the highest self-belief still won’t make a difference to the outcome. However, for those whose cancer if treatable, the legacy of a healthier lifestyle and positive outlook is invaluable. We all do what we can but it needs to be balanced by realism.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    It also seems odd that if, after all the warlike rhetoric, the person dies, and then it’s noted as ‘ died peacefully’. At what point does the so called fighting stop and the peace replace it? Peace normally happens when the parties at war agree on something that they are both happy with doesn’t it?

  • Reply October 23, 2012

    Mary Longford

    Oh Tracey what a wonderful article. The war metaphor has troubled me too. Dad died of cancer and I hated it when someone said “well he put up a good fight”. It somehow trivialised it. I HATE hearing “they have started the battle of their life”. One thing I absolutely hate is talent shows when hosts says “here they are singing for their life”. That really gives me the you know whats!! It’s a bloody talent show. To say such a thing is so disrespectful. So glad you wrote this . Mary

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    When I was diagnosed late and wrongly with bowel cancer I was, needless to say devastated but then was told it was actually ovarian cancer. I was a total woos all the way through, crying all the way down to the operating room. I started my first course of chemo & being a devout coward was full of angst and resentment as to why I was there. I never thought of it as a battle as I don’t think WE fight the beast, the drugs do. I was in remission for 3 months, never really feeling 100% right then started an 18 weekly dose of chemo losing my hair etc. I am in remission again and by the way had a port put in so the chemo could be done through it. No more finding veins. What a relief. I am coming up to being 80 & I suppose just have to tackle it as it eventuates itself again and again. I think all the nurses in Hoac are amazing. They all deserve OBEs, not flippin’ rock stars and such like. And the people behind the scenes who invent gadgets to make the nurses and our lives easier, God bless them.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    What really annoys me about the cancer “fight” battle etc is that it is a middle class battle, if you live where I live (Adelaide Hills) the cost of scans x-rays etc at the local private medical imaging service is prohibitive to many families the gaps being sometimes double or triple the rebate from Medicare. Around here we save up for medical imaging.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    Yes I detest this language. My Mother died 6 years ago from a rare and aggressive cancer and I’ve worked for a national cancer charity where this language is so embedded that I received looks of shock and disappointment when I expressed my frustration at this destructive metaphor. The psychology behind it is understandable – it provides a sense of control over something that is essentially totally out of our control. The absence of any other language around cancer meant that my mother and I never had any conversations about death or what her death would mean for us all. Living with her absence now, failing to look past the “stay positive and fight” mantra is a regret I feel daily.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    I hate the fight term. I agree that it sounds like those who die from cancer could have, should have put up a bigger fight. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Reply October 23, 2012

    Pam Newton

    Hate, hate, hate the hurtful use of this term and can’t wait for it to be relegated to the scrap heap.

    I feel about it much the same way I feel about the language of “miracles” which often goes hand in hand. The cruel lie that if you have enough fight or faith in you, then you’ll “win.” Meaning , of course, that if you “lose” it wasn’t the cancer that killed you but some inner spiritual lack.

    It’s not a battle FFS, it’s an illness.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    I dislike the metaphor also. I’ve just been diagnosed with Leukaemia. I don’t feel like I’ve entered a battle. I’m living with cancer – lots of appointments, learning about treatments and doing regular day to day tasks that still need to be done, especially when you have young children. I’m trying not to take it personally. It isn’t about me being brave or a fighter or anything. It is about how aggressive the cancer is and how well my body responds to treatment. It is about what my body is doing without me. I can choose my response to the situation, and facing death is confronting, but it is part of life and we all have to do it. Whether I live or die has nothing to do with winning or losing a battle.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    Yes, it’s not a war. Slogans like these are so glib and false. Heard a friend say she even disliked the fact that showing celebrities back doing their thing as though it was all over and done made her feel like a hypochondriac.

    Once someone in the family is diagnosed with cancer there is a new normal. Nothing is ever the same again. Even if treatment is successful the survivor and family always have to try and push back the fear of it coming back. There are also side effects from the treatment that might not be visible but will forever be part of their new normal.

    It’s important to be honest about it.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    Yes, so agree with this. When one is diagnosed with cancer, it is something that is happening within your body, so how can you wage a war on yourself! Timing, acceptance, determination and kindness go a long way to dealing with it. We will all die one day, so if the path for you is this one, peace is better than war!

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    You have got it right. I used to wonder why I felt so irritated by the phrase “after a long/short/brave battle” in the obituary for someone who had died of their disease. I thought it was just me demonstrating lack of empathy or something. Treatment for illness is not something to be likened to war, it is more to do with cooperation and going with the flow. It is about the individual caring about and for himself, with support from those around him. Not a fight, but a commitment.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    Each day any of us has is a bonus. The drugs may or may help. Surgery may or may help. Radiation may or may not help. All I know for sure is that anyone with a diagnosis is still here. Still able to smell the beautiful spring roses, still able to tell their loved ones important things, still able to choose which way they are going to handle this dilemma. Take professional advice, choose the things you can do and feel lucky we are still here.If we fight or battle we have to use heaps of head space that could be used for important things, like, just now.

  • Reply October 23, 2012


    Thank you all for your wise words on this matter. It’s a shame such glib phrases are thrown about in the media so often. Perhaps we will spark a rethink.

  • Reply October 23, 2012

    The Huntress

    Great article, Tracey. So much I could say, but won’t. A very thoughtful piece.

  • Reply October 23, 2012

    Benison O'Reilly

    I had an opinion piece published in the SMH last year on a closely related topic – the old positive attitude will beat cancer myth. Drives me nuts and, as people have alluded to earlier, it makes the poor old cancer sufferer feel guilty if they’re not upbeat enough. They have cancer FFS – I think they’re entitled to feel a little depressed.

    Ultimately it’s the type of cancer you get and how early it’s detected that decides whether you are going to survive or not. If Tony’s Greig’s lung cancer has got past the surgical cure stage I think, sadly, his ‘battle’ will be very one-sided.

  • Reply October 24, 2012


    When my husband had cancer, we spoke often of what we called “the tyranny of positive thinking”. The language of battle went hand-in-glove with the language of “stay positive”. It’s either fight rhetoric or serenity rhetoric. Both suggest that the if the patient doesn’t get better, they simply weren’t concentrating hard enough, had some failure of self-mastery. It’s why so many cancer sufferers feel not only sick, but almost guilty for being so! A doctor actually suggested we paste affirmations all over our house, “I am happy, healthy and relaxed.” No, actually I am wounded, exhausted and terrified. The effort to be upbeat is an additional burden on people who are ill. Why cannot we allow people to speak their truth? Why cannot we use the language of hope and acceptance, “I am very ill, and hoping against hope to get better.”. I think it is because in the early stages, the battle language gives people an illusion that they still have some control of the process and outcome. They don’t. The battle language also sets up a bizarre “us/them” dichotomy within a person’s own self, the “good” thinking vs the “bad” cells. We tend to view our uncooperative bodies as though they only exist to carry our brain around, and that sufficient powers of thought can fix anything (“if you dream it you can do it” is a lot of bull!). Wouldn’t it serve us better to view ourselves whole, and with compassion? When my husband passed away, he had come to a place of peace and gracious acceptance, and as his body grew weaker his spirit grew stronger and brighter every day. That was more important to me than winning any “battle”.

  • Reply October 24, 2012


    Worthwhle and relevant: Dr Brene Brown on ‘vulnerability’
    coming from 30 years of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Not ‘terminal’ but carries its own ‘death sentence.

    Great words Tracey…put down the swords and knives. it’s all about love…that’s my take. Heal the heart.

  • Reply November 1, 2012


    Really interesting discussion. I too have been iritated -actually more than irritated- by the language used. When a neighbour,beautiful 24 year old expecting his first child with his lovely wife died of leukaemia before the child was born a relative who had survived an entirely different and treatable cancer said “he just seemed to give up the fight”. People like to believe that they have a lot more control over every aspect of their life than they actually do.

    I found this book articulately expressing my point …what I would of said if I could of…Smile or Die. How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. Barabara Ehrenreich

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