The Adoption of Battlefield Language
“Fight with everything you have.” “He lost the battle.” “She is a warrior.” “He is a survivor.” “She was a victim.” This is the public discourse we typically hear around the Big C—cancer. We often hear a whirlpool of words such as war, fight, battle, target, enemy, survivor, warrior, brave, victim, lost, and won associated with individuals with cancer.
This oncological dialect is overtly peppered with battlefield metaphors that portray an oppositional, defeat-it-at-all-costs attitude towards cancer. Within the context of the battlefield language, cancer becomes the enemy. Thus, individuals with cancer are thrust into a role with only two pathways: conquer the cancer or become a victim.
We must remember that cancer is a process. It incorporates the disease’s onset, prognosis, treatment, and post-treatment phases. More specifically, cancer is a process that tells a personal story. It is a story of the individual and their support network’s (medical professionals, therapists, family, friends) triumphs and struggles. Stories are unique because they are universal and endemic to each culture.
Stories contain what early twentieth century psychiatrist Carl Jung called archetypes. Jung, at one point an acolyte of Sigmund Freud, characterized archetypes as universal, primitive, and intrinsic elements embedded in a part of the psyche called the collective unconscious.
The collective unconscious, according to Jung, is an inherited part of our psyche. It is comprised of shared, human elements and memories from our past. Within the collective unconscious, archetypes are universal themes, rooted in each culture’s stories, literature, and religion. In the context of cancer, the battlefield language we deploy insinuates that people with cancer are expected to exhibit bravery and fight tirelessly to win. Therefore, they are expected to embody what is called the hero archetype. However, is it always possible to be a hero when coping with cancer?
The Familiar Hero Archetype
I think when we talk about cancer in a warfare-like manner, we are automatically placing individuals within the hero archetype or motif. We are not necessarily talking about the classic heroes such as Indiana Jones or Robin Hood. We are referring to ordinary people facing life and death situations. Nevertheless, any hero has a mission: to destroy and annihilate what is perceived as a hellish monster—a beast called cancer in this case.
The hero persistently fights to win despite the obstacles ahead and possesses a plethora of qualities to help overcome the monster. The hero is brave and courageous, willing to make personal sacrifices. Even with setbacks or misfortunes, the hero adapts to changing circumstances, while maintaining their morals.
The hero is a protector of others and a protector of values. The warfare-like language which can symbolize a hero, energizes some individuals with cancer. Some individuals embrace the battlefield language and welcome the idea that they must fight cancer to the end. Ultimately, they align their personal values and morals with society’s orthodox idea of battling cancer without mercy.
The Heroes Meet Their Shadows
As much as heroes look to persevere and triumph over challenges, they even have shortcomings, weaknesses, and doubts. Over-utilization of the battlefield language reflects Western society’s heightened anxiety when confronting cancer and its association with suffering and death. Although some individuals with cancer embrace the battlefield language, not everyone wants to be a hero in the face of cancer. Not everyone thinks of themselves as a hero.
Even heroes have an obscure, hidden part of themselves that they ignorantly do not acknowledge or are reluctant to unveil because doing so would expose intolerable, unacceptable, and unbearable personal weaknesses and life experiences. This is where we confront what Jungian psychology calls our shadow archetype.
The shadow consists of repressed memories, shortcomings, flaws, desires, and guilt. It is described as a dark part of the unconscious—one that we have difficulty acknowledging and confronting. The shadow is a product of our endeavors to conform to societal norms and morals, while juggling our own personal morals.
To protect ourselves from this dark side, we deploy a defense mechanism called projection. With projection, we see our own undesirable qualities, that threaten some idealized form of ourselves, within others.
The problem with embedding battlefield language within oncology is that not all individuals with cancer welcome this language. Some individuals do not see themselves as possessing the characteristics of a hero. Many times support networks put a lot of pressure on individuals with cancer when they use battlefield language. Battlefield language is black and white. Either you win or lose. T
Thus, there is an underlying fear of failure and a fear of disappointing the support network and oneself. If individuals “lose” to the cancer, then they are not fulfilling their mission as a hero—a warrior. Society expects obedience from individuals with cancer so that they fight the disease with the goal of “getting better.” This means adhering to the physician’s protocols and treatment regimes while exhibiting a willingness to triumph.
Those individuals that display disobedience are viewed as deviants. Many, if not most of us have experienced or have memories of loved ones or friends who died from cancer. Sometimes those are memories that individuals repress to avoid feeling hurt, upset, angry, or fearful.
Heroes are expected to display excessive positivity and optimism in their endeavors, leaving little room for a broad range of emotions, including more somber ones such as depression and anger. Therefore, battlefield language is inappropriate as a colloquially standardized form of communicating to all individuals with cancer. Individuals vary in how they cope with a diagnosis and the ensuing treatment. Thus, it is important to avoid the assumption that the individual will welcome and adopt battlefield language and exhibit that oppositional, defeat-it-at-all-costs attitude.
Ellis LM, Blanke CD, Roach N. (2015). Losing “Losing the Battle With Cancer”. JAMA Oncol, 1(1):13–14. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2014.188
Nie, J. B., Rennie, S., Gilbertson, A., & Tucker, J. D. (2016). No More Militaristic and Violent Language in Medicine: Response to Open Peer Commentaries on “Healing Without Waging War: Beyond Military Metaphors in Medicine and HIV Cure Research”. The American journal of bioethics : AJOB, 16(12), W9–W11. doi:10.1080/15265161.2016.1226988
Slobod, D., & Fuks, A. (2012). Military metaphors and friendly fire. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 184(1), 144. doi:10.1503/cmaj.111438