Cancer and War Imagery

By Dustin Samples - Last Updated: January 5, 2023

Anyone familiar with cancer will attest to the association of war and battle metaphors in survivorship. Having to “battle” cancer or “even the battlefield” are common colloquialisms peppered into the everyday vernacular surrounding cancer.

Despite the frequency of usage, it remains unclear whether this terminology is helpful or harmful to patients with cancer. One 2019 article in The Guardian suggested that, contrary to popular belief, war idioms may increase fatalistic views of cancer.

“On reading passages peppered with war phrases, people agreed more with statements such as, ‘If someone is meant to get cancer, they will get it no matter what they do,’” the article reported, adding that, “After reading accounts of cancer patients sprinkled with war metaphors, people rated cancer treatment as more difficult than those who read the same passages with journey metaphors, or no metaphors at all.”

Recently published research from Duke University School of Medicine suggests, however, that it is not all a losing battle.

Publishing their findings in Supportive Care in Cancer, Monica H. Bodd and co-authors interviewed 15 patients with breast, lung, or colorectal cancer at the Duke Cancer Center in Durham, North Carolina. Patients were asked to describe qualitatively their general usage and frequency of use of metaphors relating to cancer diagnosis, treatment, or survivorship. They were also asked specifically about the “function and impact of the war metaphor on the patient experience of cancer.”

Contrary to the Guardian article’s suggestion, Bodd et al found that war imagery is indeed helpful to some patients.

“All patients with non-metastatic disease used war metaphors and described how these metaphors facilitated meaning-making by promoting positivity and situating cancer within a larger life story. The few patients who did not use war metaphors had metastatic disease, and they explained that war metaphors were unhelpful due to feeling a lack of control over their metastatic disease and outcomes,” stated Bodd and colleagues.

While this qualitative study was small and localized to one institution, it appears that, at least for patients with non-metastatic cancer, imagining themselves at war with cancer is useful. Despite these findings, nurses should still take caution not to supply metaphors for their patients. Each individual’s experience with cancer is deeply personal and may be motivated or discouraged by differing imagery.


‘War on cancer’ metaphors may do harm, research shows.

“More than conquerors”: a qualitative analysis of war metaphors for patients with cancer.