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Stop using military metaphors for disease

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e4706 (Published 12 July 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e4706
  1. Natasha M Wiggins, core medical trainee, Oncology Department, Essex County Hospital, Colchester CO3 3NB
  1. natasha.wiggins{at}ic.ac.uk

In oncology I come across this terminology often: patients “battle” and “courageously fight” against cancer; some “win” and some “give up the fight” and “lose.” The biomilitary metaphor has subtly worked its way into our psyche over centuries. When the remarkable metaphysical poet (and suspected drama queen) John Donne thought he was dying he wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, in which he described his illness as a “cannon shot” and a “siege [that] blows up the heart.” In 1864, Louis Pasteur used invasion imagery to introduce his fundamentally new germ theory of illness to the public. Then, in 1971, US president Nixon publically declared “war” on cancer, calling it a “relentless and insidious enemy.” Newspapers have been affirming this battle ever since.

It is difficult to think of alternative metaphors. The concept of body as battlefield is instilled in us through school textbooks with images of cells “battling” for …

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