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Why do we use military language when we talk about cancer, and is describing cancer as a "battle" or "fight" empowering or demeaning to people with cancer?

Cancer. Not too long ago, it was so terrifying that even saying the word was hard. "The big C", people said. Cancer is the second biggest killer of Americans. It strikes people of all ages and genders, often seemingly randomly and without warning. Despite increased treatment options and survival rates, there's still no cure for cancer. It's not that weird, then, that many people see cancer as an enemy, and having it as doing battle. 

Just why do we use military language when we talk about cancer, and what impact does this have on people who have it?

What's In A Word?

"I think it's good to use words like that," Julie, a survivor of a rare form of lymphoma told me. "I can tell you the whole process of going through chemo is hell." To this cancer survivor, describing cancer as a battle is empowering. "Battle, to me, conveys what I went through. I had to be armed — armed with information, with emotional support, and with physical support. In battle, you do not always know the moves the enemy is going to make. You have to look out for the unexpected. Cancer is like that, too. When you go into battle, you fight bravely. You may survive, or you may not, but you are not alone, and you are not going down without a fight."

"I have been cancer-free for almost two decades now," Kathy, another cancer survivor said. "It did feel like a battle, and I have the scars to prove it. Just like many war veterans, I am reminded of the fight I faced every day when I get dressed. My scars are a daily reminder that I fought, and I won. Too many people go into battle and do not come out victorious. In that sense I am lucky. There's no medal."

Thomas reminds us that there is no cure for cancer. Continuous vigilance is required, even after remission. Medical staff use their full arsenal of "weapons", all the treatment options at their disposal. Battles may end in stalemate, or a different strategy may be needed to continue the war. Meanwhile, "new ideas to defeat the invader are tested, and new weapons can bring victory to more people". There's a good chance of dying of cancer, just as there is a good chance of dying in war. Military terminology helps people acknowledge mortality without giving into it.

What's more, as in war, withdrawing isn't really an option. No matter how battle-tired you are, you have to carry on — not because you choose to, but because the alternative is death.

It's clear that fighting terminology is something many people with cancer embrace. This is probably one reason it is hard to discuss cancer without running into it, and cancer charities (like Cancer Research UK and their slogan "One day we will beat cancer") are using it too. These words mean that, while there's not yet a cure for cancer, society at large is now acknowledging that cancer survival rates have gone up an awful lot, and individuals can come out of their treatment alive. While some people are fighting cancer, others loudly proclaim ⌗FUCKCANCER, on the internet with hashtags and on their bodies with t-shirts and even tattoos.

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