The Politics of Language: On Talking About Disease


YOU’RE GOING TO BEAT THIS.  He’s fighting for his life. She’s a cancer survivor. Phrases like these pepper any conversation you encounter regarding people living with diseases. While they may seem innocent — and even encouraging — these statements are inherently insulting to people who have died from, or lost loved ones to, illnesses like cancer and AIDS. This is an unpopular opinion because the “combat narrative” is so prevalent that we seldom pause to consider what it truly means.

The Problem with “Combating” Illness

You might be asking what the big deal is. People call themselves “cancer warriors” all the time. Highlighting someone’s struggle is better than ignoring it, right? Besides, maybe the idea of having something to fight will energize people and help them get well.

That’s exactly the problem. The idea that a treatment process is a battle creates the expectation that the person undergoing it will come out on top. That’s the goal, but it isn’t always feasible. And, while we all want our loved ones to live and to be healthy again, we have to consider the possibility that they might not want to resist death. To a person with cancer, accepting death may be preferable to hours of debilitating treatments, especially if she’s sick with her second or third bout of cancer.

The combat narrative expects patients will want to fight, and it compels them to do so. Culturally, we view accepting death as giving up, and we view giving up as being cowardly or a failure. This kind of thinking neglects to acknowledge patients who, having been so sick for so long, don’t feel like fighting.

Who Wins and Who Loses?

By painting disease as a battleground, the combat narrative creates a way of thinking and talking about illness, in which those who live to be healthy again are better, stronger, and braver than those who don’t. As in almost any conflict, the disease battle must have a winner and a loser.

While most people wouldn’t dream of calling a cancer patient a “loser,” many will throw around the phrase “lost his battle” without stopping to consider that one who loses something is, in fact, a loser. No matter how long people spend living with the diseases they die from, no matter how many happy moments they have during that time, no matter how many people’s lives they touched during their time here: they’re still a loser in the end, because they couldn’t live through their sickness.

The pictures of small, bald children wearing shirts that say “I kicked leukemia’s butt” are endearing. They give us hope and remind us that every moment we have is precious. Likewise, Fight Like a Girl merchandise is – on its surface – a cool subversion of the common, sexist insult. The problem is that there are people out there who cannot possibly come out victorious in the win/lose dichotomy the combat narrative creates.

What Should We Say Instead?

It’s difficult to remove combat language from our conversations about illness, because the idea that every patient is a “warrior” permeates our entire concept of what it means to be sick with a disease that could kill you. If you aren’t fighting, then what could you possibly be doing?

Here are some alternate statements we can try using to avoid contributing to the combat narrative.

Instead of You’re going to beat this, try: You’re going to get better. This isn’t perfect. It still places the expectation of survival — and of wanting to survive — on the patient’s shoulders. It is a better alternative, though, than talking about cancer as if it were a Little League game or a schoolyard fight, and it doesn’t promote the idea that illness is a win/lose situation.

Instead of He’s fighting for his life, try: His condition isn’t good right now. By making this substitution, you’ve removed the combat-language from your speech and have focused negativity on the patient’s health, rather than on the patient himself. So, in the worst-case scenario, the idea will be that it was his condition — not he — that failed to improve.

Instead of She’s a cancer survivor, try: She had cancer two years ago. While “survivor” isn’t exclusively a combat term, it carries a lot of weight, and brings to mind the image of the returning veteran. It’s also unnecessary: your use of the past-tense will make it clear that your friend is no longer ill.

If you’re living with a disease — whether it’s a chronic condition or a fatal illness — and it makes you feel good to call yourself a Cancer Warrior, I can’t tell you not to do it. But please be respectful to those who have passed on, or who have chosen not to view their treatment as a battle. They might not have the same outcome or attitude as you, but that doesn’t make it okay to call them losers.

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