Cancer: Let’s Weed Out the War Language

Jan 24, 2024 | Blog Articles

February 4 is World Cancer Day and an opportunity to raise the campaign to let go of negative language around cancer to create pathways towards healing and inner peace.

When we hear about someone living with cancer or someone who has died from cancer, we often hear about their illness through war metaphors.

People living with cancer are often referred to as “fighting” or “battling” their cancer, as though their body is an enemy combatant.

How many obituaries have you seen that state something like, Jenny lost her courageous battle against cancer? which suggests there are winners and losers of an ongoing war – and that the deceased was always the loser.

This kind of adversarial language is so common there’s even a Wikipedia entry about the use of war metaphors when referring to people’s experiences of cancer.

But how helpful is this kind of language that’s so frequently used to describe a situation that touches so many of our lives?

Cancer Language Traps

Described by some as “cancer language traps”, these common phrases can feel demoralising or disempowering, as though we’ve apportioned blame to people for a situation beyond their control.

It’s something close to heart for Quest Founder and CEO, Petrea King, who lived through life-threatening Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) at the age of 33 and has since spoken to thousands of people living with cancer.

“When I was told that I had a ‘terminal’ disease, that I ‘wouldn’t see Christmas, just 3 months away, it felt like an annihilation of my body, mind and spirit. I was also told that there was nothing I could do about the disease or the outcome. I found my specialist’s words both confronting and demoralising,” Petrea says.

“I would have preferred him to tell me that, ‘while many people die within a few weeks of this disease, some people don’t, and we’ll be here to provide support, treatment and encouragement so that you live as long and as well as possible’. Then I would have felt that he was on my team!

“If you’re living with a cancer diagnosis, you do not need to be at war with yourself or your body. I never felt like I ‘fought for my life’. I yearned for peace – with myself, with my history, with my circumstance – so fighting or battling were not words I related to at all.

The word ‘terminal’ is for describing computers, or places for planes, buses and trains, not for describing people. People can be told things like, ‘you’ve failed to respond to the treatment’, like it’s your fault. Descriptions like ‘we’re going to target…’ make it sound like there’s a war on cancer.”

“Even the word ‘survivor’ implies there was a battle.

“It’s all so disempowering to the patient on the other side of the specialist’s desk. It’s the difference between ‘I’m living with a life-threatening illness’, rather than ‘I’m dying from terminal cancer’.”

While some of us may not have thought twice about using cancer war metaphors, for many people currently living with cancer they can be counterproductive to establishing peace of mind.

“Our whole reality can shrink down to ‘I’m a cancer patient’,” Petrea says.

“For the first three months after my diagnosis I wouldn’t say the word ‘leukaemia’. I thought if I said it out loud, everyone would look at me with ‘coffin-eyes’. I didn’t want people looking at me with pitying eyes, like I was already dead.”

For Petrea, it’s about choosing language that enlivens and inspires people rather than a language that victimises or diminishes them. We can help people to better understand themselves and, through education and support, come up with their own best answers.

“How you frame it in your mind is going to make a big difference to how you manage your situation. Once we get past the shock and denial after a diagnosis, we find a way of adjusting to this new landscape that we’ve suddenly been thrust into, then we can begin the journey of meeting this challenge.”

“Given my specialist had told me I wouldn’t be here for Christmas, I sent him a Christmas card for each of the next seven years – but never received a response! I had hoped he might come knocking on my door to ascertain why I hadn’t ‘died on time’. I don’t believe telling people how long they’ll live is helpful either.”

When a doctor says a person has 3-6 months, 6-12 months or 12-18 months to live, they only talk in quarterly instalments because they’re talking about a statistical group of people, not the person as an individual. They simply don’t know how long an individual might live because they don’t know how they will respond to treatment or what other co-morbidities the individual may have.

There’s a new term – ‘turbo cancer’ – which has become common to describe a recent and surprising increase in the number of people being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancers. These are often described as ‘nasty’ or ‘aggressive’. Again, these are emotionally charged words that are quite frightening for someone who’s been newly diagnosed with cancer. 

Practical Tools for Positive Thinking

While the way we think and talk about cancer might need a refresh, there are so many things that people can do to help themselves when they’ve had a diagnosis of cancer. They may benefit from learning about improving their nutrition or what foods will work best for a person’s situation especially if their cancer affects the digestive system; they may need to learn to ‘switch off’ their brain, so they can achieve deep, healing sleep at night; they may find meditation and mindfulness can tame a wild mind; perhaps learn how to have difficult conversations or managing their emotions more skilfully. These are just some of the topics we cover in our Quest for Life 5-day residential program.

We can use positive language that engages our Task Positive Network (TPN), rather than our Default Mode Network (DMN), which can keep us embittered about the past or fearful about the future.

The Default Mode Network in the brain holds all our unconscious attitudes, judgements, stories, beliefs, limitations and the “I’ll be happy when…” stories. When we meditate or practice mindfulness, we engage the Task Positive Network which connects us to our neocortex, our higher functioning executive brain, just behind your eyebrows.

Petrea’s Coming to Your Senses practice helps us engage the TPN and can be used any time.

“At Quest, we encourage a positive view of our circumstance by reminding people of their innate capacities to discern what is best for them, and we assist them to make meaning of their suffering. It’s not about diminishing the cause of their suffering. We know that people have often faced traumatic or tragic events in their lives.

“Our suffering can break us open to exploring and understanding ourselves more deeply and can give meaning to our lives. To be at peace with yourself, other people, and life when you’re dealing with your mortality is indeed a mighty achievement. And there’s often quite an inner journey getting to that place of peace!”

If our language can positively impact people on their journey with cancer, then perhaps it’s time we collectively rethink how we refer to an experience lived by so many people in Australia and around the world.

“While you may be living with cancer, it doesn’t have to be your total reality. You probably play many roles in your family, your workplace or community – as well as living with cancer. Also, rather than labelling yourself as ‘I am sick’, consider changing it to, ‘I feel sick’. This gives us a bit of distance,” Petrea says.

“It’s not who I am, but it is what I am feeling. It’s not to deny the feeling but to have a relationship with the feeling rather than being defined by the feeling. You’re not your body; you’ve got one. You’re not your thoughts; you have thoughts. You’re not your feelings; you have feelings. You’re not your story; you have a story.

“It’s about seeing things differently; shifting our perspective to one in which we feel empowered, educated and inspired to choose our response to life and its challenges.”

Petrea points towards the 12 Principles of Attitudinal Healing from the book “Teach Only Love: The Twelve Principles of Attitudinal Healing” by Dr Jerry Jampolsky as a practical tool for people living with cancer (or their loved ones) to help transform feelings such as fear, blame, despair, shame, and self-condemnation into more positive experiences such as joy, empowerment, inspiration, and peace.

In 1986 Petrea studied and worked with Jerry in his Center for Attitudinal Healing in Sausalito, California. In 1999, Jerry and his partner, Diane Cirincione, officiated at the opening ceremony of the Quest for Life Centre in Bundanoon.

The 12 Principles of Attitudinal Healing

  1. The essence of our being is love.
  2. Health is inner peace. Healing is letting go of fear.
  3. Giving and receiving are the same.
  4. We can let go of the past and of the future.
  5. Now is the only time there is, and each instant is for giving.
  6. We can learn to love ourselves and others by forgiving rather than judging.
  7. We can become love finders rather than fault finders.
  8. We can choose and direct ourselves to be peaceful inside regardless of what is happening outside.
  9. We are students and teachers to each other.
  10. We can focus on the whole of life rather than the fragments.
  11. Since love is eternal, death need not be viewed as fearful.


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How Quest for Life can help

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