When dealing with cancer, “lost battle” language is inappropriate

I was very saddened to learn of the recent death of Roger Ebert. I, like so many around the world, was impressed and inspired at how he handled himself in the aftermath of his cancer surgery years ago that left him disabled and disfigured and unable to eat, drink or speak. And yet, despite his struggles he remained a dominant force in film criticism, blogging, writing (even cookbooks!) and inspired so many of us with his outlook on life and living.

This is not an obituary of Roger Ebert. Dozens have been written and by people who knew him. I did not. I admired from afar.

What struck me in reading so many accounts of Mr. Ebert’s death, as it has done many times before with others who died from cancer, is how many of the obits and tributes inevitably referred to how he “lost his battle with cancer”.

No, he didn’t. He died from cancer.

Cancer is not a game of winners and losers. If you live you “win” and if you die you “lose”? How inappropriate is that?

That is emphatically NOT to say that I don’t think that most cancer patients and survivors have indeed BATTLED this disease. Or that they have struggled in many cases against long odds. I know how hard it is to deal with a cancer diagnosis and to endure even “mild” cancer treatments. It exhausts the body and the mind, it often robs one of dignity and plays havoc with relationships and families and just about everything else important to us all. So no, I am not saying that people facing cancer are not brave and courageous and are not in a real “battle”.

It’s not the “battle” part that bothers me – it is the “losing” part. For those who ultimately die from a cancer, the idea that they have “lost” a battle implies to me that if they had just done SOMETHING else differently then maybe they might have “won”. The use of the word “lose” is like a zero-sum game to me: if someone or something “loses” then that means that someone or something else “wins”. You can’t have a loser if you don’t have winner. We should not so easily give cancer that kind of power over us.

What other diseases or condition do we cede this kind of power to? My mother died a few years ago from acute respiratory distress brought on by H1N1. Did anyone say that she “lost her battle to a virus”? No, she died from a respiratory infection. If someone suffers lifelong hypertension and eventually dies from a heart attack, do we ever say in the obituary that he/she “lost his/her battle with high blood pressure”?

Then why do so many deaths from cancer get reported as “after a long struggle/battle, so-and-so lost his/her battle with cancer”? It’s not quite “blaming the victim” but it does have ring of placing the ultimate responsibility for having died in the hands of the deceased.

I know that there will be many cancer patients and advocates who will disagree totally with me, and feel that the battle analogy empowers them somehow. Maybe it does when they are alive and kicking and fighting and scratching and “battling”. But if they do not survive, then please let us not blame them inadvertently for “losing” the battle against cancer.

Roger Ebert did not lose his battle with cancer. He lived graciously and courageously with it until the very end. In many, many ways, by inspiring and teaching us, he won his battle in other very important ways. He was a wonderful role model right to the end.

He did not lose his battle with cancer.

He WON his battle with cancer…

…And, sadly, he also died from cancer.

Michael A. Wosnick is a retired cancer researcher who blogs at Cancer Research 101. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelWosnick

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  1. Tom Closson

    I agree with you Michael but I would go one step further. I don’t think “battle” language should be used at all when discussing cancer as I am unaware of any evidence that “fighting” cancer makes any difference in outcomes. I suggest that we use the word “treating” as we do with other diseases. Then it is the treatment that succeeds or fails.

    • Michael A. Wosnick

      Hi Tom,

      I am aware of some national polling a few years go that said that the majority of Canadians don’t really like the “military” or “battle” metaphors. That said, I also know that the idea of “fighting” if you are the patient or the family can be very empowering. As you well know, everyone deals with catastrophic illness and such like very differently – for those that feel empowered by this I say why take that empowerment away?

      My issue is that if that person eventually does succumb, it it not THEM who has lost a battle. If anything modern medicine failed. The patient did not “fail treatment” as docs often say. No the treatment failed them (as you said).

  2. P. van Megchelen

    Thank you very much for this ‘food for thought’. As a science writer,%featured% I use the ‘battle’ metaphor sometimes, especially when explaining the workings of immune cells.I believe that to some people, the battle metaphor helps to give words to their feelings of being besieged by an alien entity, to the heroic struggle –%featured% well, I think you put it far more eloquently in your post. If someone wants to refer to his or her life with a disease as a struggle, who am I to judge?

    I completely agree that it is inappropriate to talk about ‘losing’ this battle, especially in the case of someone who lived his life with cancer with such grace and power. And maybe, we should reconsider using the battle metaphor altogether – unless we want to talk about our lives as a continuous struggle with its inevitable end…

  3. Rob Sargeant

    Cancer-related ‘battle’ language stems in large part from those who raise money for cancer research; presumably because it works and because people identify with it. ‘Cancer can be beaten’, ‘Help Conquer Cancer in Our Life Time’, ‘The Ride to Conquer Cancer’, and ‘Join the Fight’ are all recognizable slogans we see and hear in fundraising and other promotional materials EVERY day; slogans used by our leading cancer hospitals and by cancer societies themselves. To ask people to parse language so as to use metaphor solely when addressing the disease, separate and apart from the patient who has it, is simply unrealistic. %featured%‘The Ride to Raise Money for Research into the Treatment of Malignancy Which to This Point has Proven to Be Highly Disappointing in Term of Outcome; Especially for those who have Bravely Succombed Already’ – simply doesn’t have the same ring to it.%featured%
    This is hair-splitting at its finest.

  4. Brian Orr

    I agree that%featured% the “lost battle” framing is inappropriate and may be hurting cancer patients and their families. The focus needs to be on living with having cancer with grace and dignity,%featured% rather than a focus that any set back or progression of cancer being seen as losing. Perhaps the most difficult stage in living with cancer is recognizing when it is better to focus the attention of a patient’s treatment from “curative” to palliative care. This can be a difficult transition for a patient, family members and sometimes their healthcare providers because of the focus on “winning the battle”.

    • Angela Paez

      Brian, I wanted to comment on something you mentioned – transitioning from curative to palliative care with an individual that has a terminal illness. I never gave up – even as the last days approached, I was in some state of denial. I’m not too clear where I am with that, not sure I will ever be able to give it too much thought, as it brings me a profound amount of sadness. I hope some day to have peace regarding the path we walked with this disease.

  5. Angela Paez

    Well said …

    My father recently passed. He endured three long years with Lymphoma – Non-Hodgkin’s … I’m not altogether sure I can recall him complaining even one time. I was honored to be his daughter and so very grateful to have been at his side until he passed through … You will always be with me, Papa .. Just like you told me. Cuanto te extrańo … No tienes idea ..

  6. T.Murley

    I experienced cancer in the last few years and, although cancer might be a greater risk of life, I ‘ve found my current challenges of having incompletely controlled epilepsy for over 30 years to be a greater challenge, with issues of medication changes, surgeries, memory impairment and the anxiety of the smaller seizures. I admit facing health challenges is fatiguing for all. In different ways we all face challenges. I am thankful my cancer did not spread as it did for another I knew who passed away from the same came cancer spreading.

  7. Anonymous

    I think that you’re right about Roger Ebert, if he had cancer. At least he’s not fighting cancer anymore. He’s able to rest now. I mean? He no longer has to be treated for cancer.

  8. Chris

    I googled “language cancer battle” because I was wondering if it was only me that felt this way, and glad this came up first. I feel entirely the same. It’s so inappropriate and unintentionally insensitive. I’m glad this post exists. Thank you.

  9. test

    I couldn’t agree more. When people say those who live are “fighters” it implies those who die were insufficient in some way and that’s why they died. It drives me crazy. I know my comment is late, but I was just thinking about both of my parents who died from cancer, and hating this terminology. So I googled it and found your article! thanks.

  10. Pedro

    I totally disagree. My dear wife suffer almost 3 years with 4 surgery, 12 chemotherapy sections in two batches (surgery, chemotherapy, surgery, chemotherapy, surgery, surgery). You have to be brave, understand and accept the medical science myopia and limitations, be resilient and fight proving that you deserve to live. This is a fight fore sure, a battle against a modern disease that no one deserve. She was a warrior! If the science were capable of provide the cure with no pain, no discomfort and ridiculous financial cost, I would agree.

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