Cancer is a disease, not a military campaign: Changing the narrative

Research has shown that the ubiquitous use of war metaphors when referring to cancer is not helpful and could cause harm by instilling fear in people who delay reporting symptoms. In this blog Bonni Suckling (Jed’s mom) explains how the words we choose to talk to children and their parents about cancer, really do matter.

Words matter – there are no winners or losers with cancer. I hated people telling my son he was brave and then praising him for hiding his emotion. My son was terrified, I was terrified, his daddy was terrified – none of us were brave – we were broken. Unashamedly broken!

When we hear someone has been diagnosed with cancer, war metaphors are never far behind. Cancer ‘battle’, ‘bravely fought’, ‘won’ or ‘lost’. Using metaphors like this implies that if a patient fights hard enough and/or long enough, he or she will be able to win the war and became a “war hero”.

What burdens do we place on the cancer patient? They have to beat cancer, like it is some kind of battle they have control over.

Examples: “you can do this” “you are so brave” “you will win the war against cancer”

“Cancer is not an opponent in some war game that can be stomped out by mindset, strength, determination and courage.”

Personally, I find the metaphors patronizing, judgmental, exhausting and misguided. Cancer is not an opponent in some war game that can be stomped out by mindset, strength, determination and courage. Cancer is random, bad luck and it is beyond anyone’s control (for the most part).

No amount of reasoning, fighting, battling cancer can affect the outcome. As an advocate I want to remove this stigmatization!


It’s okay not to be okay

When you first get the news that you have cancer, you are absolutely petrified, yet you are encouraged to be brave, strong and remain positive. A patient can be left feeling guilty for being scared by well-meaning exhortations to be POSITIVE. In the words of Refuge In Grief‘s Megan – “it’s okay, not to be okay”.

“Patients go into remission because their treatment worked, full stop!”

Jed had Anaplastic Astrocytoma (brain cancer) and died aged 4

You don’t fight a heart attack or a stroke… but we are told to “keep fighting” cancer. Cancer doesn’t care how courageous and positive you are. Patients go into remission because their treatment worked, full stop!

My 4-year-old son had an Anaplastic Astrocytoma, brain cancer, in his “battle” he was thrown into a ring with a giant beast, and he was a small boy. I assure you NO amount of bravery, courage, faith or fight would have saved him. If it was war, he was an innocent, unarmed opponent beaten to death.

Be mindful of your words.

About the author

This blog was written by Bonita (Bonni) Suckling, mom to Jed, who died from a brain cancer called Anaplastic Astrocytoma. Bonni has a Post Graduate Diploma in Paediatric Palliative Medicine at the University of Cape Town. In Jed’s memory Bonni founded Rainbows and Smiles in 2009, a community-based, charitable foundation dedicated to providing emotional, social and financial support to children diagnosed with cancer or a life-threatening illness, and their families and caregivers.
Find out more at: Rainbows & Smiles – Supporting Kids with Cancer (