Cancer lingo: How one person's thoughtful metaphor can be another's cliché

'He's a warrior. A real fighter.' These all-too-common battle metaphors are regularly aimed at people trying to get through a cancer diagnosis. While the words may be well-intentioned, doctors say they can often do more harm than good.

When it comes to someone living with cancer, is fight-focused language the best approach?

Claire Edmonds was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. Although well-meaning, she says 'warrior metaphors' can do more harm than good for those living with cancer. (David Donnelly/CBC)

In her cozy Toronto home, Claire Edmonds strums a few strings on her guitar and slips into her relax mode. It's part of her therapy, helping her to maintain good mental health.

Two years ago, a routine mammogram disrupted what was a peaceful life the 59-year-old shared with her husband and two daughters. The results of the test taken the day before revealed a suspicious tumour.

"I came home at nine o'clock that night. It was my birthday. My husband was sitting on the couch looking very pale."

The doctor had phoned: It was breast cancer.

Fatigue of fighting

What followed were several months of the standard treatment: Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery.

But then came a different kind of discomfort: the awkward language of cancer from well-meaning friends.

"Heroic. Hated that," Edmonds recalls. "Didn't feel heroic at all."

Other words fell short, too. "Courageous didn't work for me. It was a rare feeling."

If you're not sure what to say to someone recently diagnosed with cancer, doctors suggest you take time to listen instead.

For Edmonds, that kind of language wasn't helpful — it was a burden.

"It's exhausting to be a battler," she says. "It's exhausting to deny the feelings of fear and anxiety and sadness and grief."

Warrior metaphors — or whatever you want to call those cancer clichés — have been around for some time. But the language was thrust back into the public spotlight after the recent brain cancer diagnosis of U.S. Senator John McCain. 

On Twitter, well-wishes — including former president Barack Obama — described the senator as a "brave fighter." On TV newscasts, reporters suggested that while McCain was in for a tough battle, his disease had a "worthy opponent."

Thoughtful metaphor vs. common cliché

"Most of us are not real fans of using these battle metaphors," says Dr. Elie Isenberg-Grzeda, a psychiatrist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

He says he counsels his cancer patients on the impact their disease and their mental health can have on each other.

"On one side of the coin is, 'You're tough. You can beat this. You're a fighter. You're a strong warrior.' But the flip side of that is the person ends up dying from their cancer. And it means they weren't tough enough. They couldn't beat it. They weren't a fighter. They were actually a loser."  

Warrior metaphors prevent a person with cancer from being honest with friends and family, he says. And the result is loneliness and isolation. 

"It's hard to talk about cancer without invoking metaphors," says Dr. Robert Maunder, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital. "One person's thoughtful metaphor, is another person's cliché."

While battle metaphors can impose unfair expectations on a person with cancer, Maunder says other patients may actually find those words empowering.

"It is helpful to take your cues from the person with the disease," he says. "There are no perfect words or fail-safe metaphors. But it is usually better to say something than nothing. And to listen well."

Claire Edmonds was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Isenberg-Grzeda agrees. Family and loved ones of a cancer patient can be helpful by simply being there and listening.

"You know, I tell most of my patients, there's actually nothing more brave than being able to show how afraid you are of something that is scary. Or how sad you are about something that is really sad. To me, that's real bravery."

As for Edmonds, she remembers how her friends thought that once her treatment ended, the worst would be over — a sort of "finish line" with cancer. But, she says, it doesn't necessarily work that way.

"I think some people in my world were looking for that finish line. Now we don't have to worry about you anymore. Done. Your hair is going to come back," she recalls. "And I'm thinking: I can't move my head up, I can't move off the couch."

Today, Edmonds is on medication to treat her breast cancer, and she's considering a tattoo to finish the reconstruction of her breast. Some people who have gone through a similar situation find the warrior lingo empowering, she admits.

"For me though, the word that kept coming up was not a battle metaphor — but the word 'love'."

About the Author

Kas Roussy

Senior Reporter

Kas Roussy is a senior reporter with the Health unit at CBC News. In her more than 30 years with CBC, Kas’s reporting has taken her around the globe to cover news in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chile, Haiti and China, where she was the bureau producer.


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