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Views & Reviews Review of the Week

Metaphors for malignancies

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 17 August 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5273
  1. Stephen Ginn, Roger Robinson editorial registrar
  1. sginn{at}

How does the biggest trial unit in Europe balance the individual needs of hundreds of patient volunteers with the demands of participation in studies of treatment? Stephen Ginn reflects on a two part radio documentary

Of all maladies, few so occupy human fears and efforts as cancer. This is not without justification because many of us will eventually receive this diagnosis. For an individual, cancer brings uncertainty about the future and places strains on close relationships. In many cases the disease will progress and be accompanied by failing health and prolonged treatment. Western societies, which venerate youth and are on uneasy terms with death and decay, provide little preparation for a terminal diagnosis.

The complexity of the disease is perhaps why cancer and its treatments are imbued with metaphor. Although many nuanced concepts are understood in more familiar terms, cancer is unusually well suited to be described in this way. The martial metaphor is the most common. A patient (a soldier) fights cancer (the enemy) with chemical, biological, and nuclear “weapons.” Another metaphor is that of a journey. This is more applicable when thinking of cancer …

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