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Metaphors involving violence, such as 'fighting' and 'battling', are often used in relation to cancer. Some of these metaphors, such as 'a losing battle', can lead to feelings of guilt or failure in patients. There are therefore increasing calls to stop using these metaphors of violence. Linguist Dunja Wackers advocates a different approach: don’t get rid of the 'battle language’ but instead use associations with struggle that better suit patients' experiences. She explains this in her PhD thesis, which she will defend at the University of Amsterdam on Tuesday, 20 February.

Violence metaphors in relation to cancer are so ingrained in the English language that you barely notice them,' says Wackers. 'And we also have them in Dutch. Terms like “fighting” or “battling” against cancer, or obituaries saying someone “fought valiantly, but lost the battle against cancer”. Although these metaphors are very common in our thinking and speaking about cancer, there are those who resist their use.’

Wackers investigated the reasons behind that resistance – an analysis that was previously lacking. ‘These insights help to better understand what exactly is undesirable about the use of these metaphors, and why. This allows us to learn to use the metaphors in a more appropriate way. Because they also have positive functions: patients can also draw strength from them if they see themselves as a “warrior” who can “defeat” the disease. If we try to banish all metaphors of violence, we would also nullify these positive effects.'

We think in metaphors

Wackers analysed public discussions on blogs, in opinion pieces in news media, and in online patient forums to find out how people criticise violence metaphors surrounding cancer. She used a combination of argumentation and metaphor analysis. 'Using the first method, you can gain insight into which precise positions people take, and what arguments they put forward in support of these positions. The second method makes it possible to determine when a word concerns a metaphor, how that metaphor is used, and what implications people derive from metaphor use.’

Metaphors are much more than ornaments in our language

Metaphors are often seen as figures of speech or embellishments in language. 'But for several decades now, linguists have known that metaphors are much more than that and are actually the basis of our conceptual system. We think in metaphors, as it were: we use them to understand and interpret the world around us. As a result, our everyday language is full of metaphors, even though we are usually not aware of them.'

Another interpretation of 'victory'

Wackers analysed how we can further explore metaphors of violence and use associations with struggle that better suit patients' experiences. 'It is often thought that metaphors are so common that we no longer notice them. It is therefore quite striking how much people criticise the use of metaphors of violence surrounding cancer and how frequently they make suggestions for using them differently.

For example, critical language users argue to give a different meaning to 'victory'. ‘Death from cancer does not necessarily have to be equated with defeat. Patients could also consider it a victory if they manage their life with cancer in such a way that they can continue to do the things that are important to them despite their illness.'

Cancer is an unequal battle

Another example of reinterpretation: cancer could be approached as an unequal battle. 'In current use of the metaphor “struggle”, this unequal aspect is often underemphasised. It is often presented as “If the patient fights hard enough, they will win the battle.” But a battle has different parties with different chances for ‘”victory”. In the case of cancer, these are often unequal and to the detriment of the person affected by cancer.'

According to Wackers, by discussing criticism levied against violence metaphors, we gain a better understanding of their limitations, but also find ways to improve upon them. 'These metaphors are too automated in our language to disappear. Moreover, as mentioned, people can also draw strength from metaphors. By becoming aware of how we use them, and being informed about the objections, we can also enable other interpretations that better suit patients' experiences.'

Defence details

Dunja Wackers, 2024, 'Argumentative resistance to violence metaphors for cancer: An analytical study of argumentation against metaphor'. Supervisor Prof. dr. G.J. Steen, co-supervisor is Dr H.J. Plug.

Time and location

Tuesday, 20 February, 13.00-14.30, Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam