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Language experts warn against using ‘language of war’ to describe cancer

The linguists at the university say that when language used by doctors and support networks describe cancer as the enemy, it is often considered unhelpful and alienating to those who are living with the disease.

Linguistics professor Elena Semino has said, “Although well meaning, the effect of using war metaphors like this can be damaging to some people. Many people are unhappy with their illness being discussed in this way. Blame is being put on the patient and there’s almost a sense that, if you are dying, you must have given up and not have fought hard enough.”

As a result of the research, Professor Semino is now working on developing a guide for doctors and specialists around the UK to help them choose the best words when dealing with patients. The guide intends to tell healthcare professionals only to use battle metaphors if the patient uses such words themselves.

Professor Semino continued; “For some patients, some of the time, the idea of being engaged in a fight is motivating. Some people say with pride that ‘I’m a fighter’, and they find a sense of meaning and purpose and identity in that. The study showed that we are all different, and different metaphors work for different people, and at different times.”

Cancer support and advice charity Macmillan have responded to the results of the research by saying that they have steered clear of using the language of war, but they did also point out that young people tend to strongly identify with the idea of fighting the disease and often use this language themselves.

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