Battle with cancer

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"Battle with cancer" is a term used by the media when referring to people suffering from cancer. Those who have died are said to have "lost their battle with cancer", while the living are described as "fighting cancer". It has been argued that words such as "battle" and "fight" are inappropriate, as they suggest that cancer can be defeated if one fights hard enough.[1][2][3]


The phrase is often used when someone dies, and may appear in obituaries. For example, a statement from Victoria Wood's publicist in April 2016 said that Wood had "passed away, after a short but brave battle with cancer".[4][5] In December 2016, journalist A.A. Gill was described by Sky News as having died after a "short fight with cancer".[6]

Research in 2014 led by Elena Semino, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, alongside palliative care specialists, based on 1.5 million words of discussion, led Semino to say, "We have enough evidence to suggest that battle metaphors are sufficiently negative for enough people that they shouldn’t be imposed on anyone". The study stated that doctors should avoid battle/fight metaphors unless patients themselves chose to use them, and obituaries should avoid them, especially the idea of "losing" such a battle/fight. By comparison, another common metaphor, comparing cancer to a "journey" was "less likely to lead to feelings of guilt or failure".[7]

In her 2014 article in The Guardian titled "Having cancer is not a fight or a battle", the medical doctor Kate Granger, who was diagnosed with desmoplastic small-round-cell tumor (a type of sarcoma), explains how the use of military language, whilst perhaps aiming to instil a sense of positivity, can have the opposite effect.[8]

A charity has been named Cyclists Fighting Cancer[9] and foods have been described as "cancer-fighting".[10] Following the death of Robin Gibb, cancer survivor Jenni Murray criticized the media for using 'pugilistic terminology' arguing 'RIP Robin Gibb with an acknowledgement that he drew the short straw of a difficult disease'.[11]

Other illnesses/conditions[edit]

The concept of a "battle with..." is used in similar phrases such as a "battle with depression".[12]


  1. ^ "Stating a Person Lost Her/His Battle with Cancer Is Insulting | Nancy's Point". Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  2. ^ "Cancer is an illness, not a battle". Dying Matters. Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  3. ^ "Stop Using The Phrase "Someone Lost Their Battle With Cancer"". Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  4. ^ Leon Watson (20 April 2016). "Comedian Victoria Wood dies aged 62 after short cancer battle". Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  5. ^ Heather Saul (20 April 2016). "Victoria Wood dead: Comedian and actress dies from cancer aged 62". The Independent. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  6. ^ Restaurant critic AA Gill dies aged 62 after short fight with cancer. Sky News, 11 December 2016. 11 December 2016.
  7. ^ Charlie Cooper (3 November 2014). "Mind your language: 'Battling' cancer metaphors can make terminally ill patients worse | Health News | Lifestyle". The Independent. Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  8. ^ Kate Granger. "Having cancer is not a fight or a battle | Society". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  9. ^ "Cyclists Fighting Cancer". Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  10. ^ "6 Cancer-Fighting Superfoods". 22 February 1999. Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  11. ^ "Jenni Murray: Robin Gibb didn't lose any 'battle'". The Independent. 22 May 2012. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 24 December 2015. Retrieved 20 April 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)