Cancer isn’t a battle, it’s cancer


A friend of mine drew my attention via Twitter this week to an article detailing Robert Peston’s thoughts on his late wife’s cancer. If you  have not read it, it’s a compelling read, not least to rediscover the truth that cancer happens to the famous among us as readily as to ordinary mortals.

Full marks to Peston for ‘speaking out’, especially for remarking on the impact of the disease on his children. He is right; cancer does happen to a whole family, not just those receiving treatment. In this sense cancer is mundane, ordinary. Food still needs to be bought and prepared and eaten. The school run waits for no one.

Unfortunately this is the side of cancer still very much missing from everyday portrayals of the disease. We prefer to consume stories about the outward signifiers of cancer, for example articles about ‘brave’ actors being seen for the first time without any hair. Leaving aside the unpleasant vicariousness of sharing in the minutiae of celebrity suffering, the more insidious issue at stake here is the unquestioning acceptance of cancer as a battle.

To be precise, my issue is not with Robert Peston, but rather with unthinking copy editors who insist on inserting ‘battle with’ in front of the word cancer.

I have written here before about the deficiencies of the battle metaphor to describe cancer. Here is a summary:

1. From personal experience I can say after a day on a chemotherapy drip you feel the battle is being done to you, not that you are choosing to fight in one yourself.

2. The notion of a ‘battle’ places the responsibility of getting better upon the patient. This opens up the possibility that it is the ‘strong’ or ‘deserving’ patients who survive having cancer, and that those who die from it are somehow lacking in moral fibre. This is dangerous. (I sometimes wonder if it is not unlike a bizarre mutation of the Protestant work ethic, itself a mutation of the notion of the idea of ‘deserving’ to be ‘saved’.)

3. The idea of cancer as a battle unnecessarily romanticises cancer as a disease when there is nothing romantic about it. Consider the short sentence used at the head of the Peston article, used almost always in the past tense and when someone has just died. Even though the battle has been lost we persist in reassuring ourselves that the deceased has ‘given it everything’. Like so much that is said about cancer by people who have not had it, it is uttered more to reassure the speaker than those having treatment for the disease.

I have great admiration for those who fund research into cancer, the charities and charity runners ‘racing for life’ in the search for a so-called cure to the disease. Long may they all continue. But I do think the discourse around cancer reached a new low recently with the current Race for Life video, which contains the unintentionally hilarious line: ‘Cancer, you prat.’

Is this really the best we can do?

Far more tuthful is the view of those such as Ade Edmondson, who, in an article similar to Peston’s (but with a crucially different outcome) has said the following:

‘So, there is no battle. I hate the word battle. You just get battered with a load of drugs. People want the words “trauma”, “battle” and ” life-changing”, but it’s not a great three-part TV drama full of moments, it’s a long grind, like a slow car crash that will last five years and then, hopefully, we’ll get out.’

This pretty much nails it. But because the battle metaphor is so persuasive and sexy, voices like Edmondson’s are heard all too rarely.

Next time you are tempted to retweet stories such as Peston’s without a moment’s thought, please pause to question the efficacy of cancer as a battle, with its inevitable logic of valour, winners and losers. To misquote Orwell, in the battle against cancer as a war metaphor I do not need to ask myself which side I am on.

You can read my account of cancer in my memoir Love for Now and in my collection of poems Riddance.


      1. Thanks … I have read the article now. Interesting that the bereaved husband himself uses quite different registers: monsters and shocks / her stoicism and his tears.


      2. Well said and thanks for pointing this out. More metaphors to deconstruct…

        Anthony Wilson

        Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

        Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere



  1. I appreciate this article very much. These things need to be said more often. Cancer is big business for the money changers but very often a life threatening disaster for the sufferers.


  2. Thank you for reiterating these sentiments. I despise the analogy battles/fights with cancer. My cancer snuck back without warning and then announced itself incurable. I’m going to endure all the treatment I can until my body wears out, NOT until I have lost a fight.


    1. Dear Alison Thanks so much for commenting on this post. It means a lot that yo stopped by. I am truly sorry to hear of your news. I know you will continue to process the experience as only you can, with honesty and integrity. Wishing you all the best as ever Anthony Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere



  3. Brilliant. I totally agree. I’ve always hated the way cancer is given a ‘playground bully’ personality by certain cancer charities. OK, let’s not beat about the bush – Cancer Research UK. And they openly admit to it, too! Just listen to:
    But my irritation turned to anger when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. From a patient’s point of view, this ‘personification’ is deeply unhelpful. In fact, I’d go one further and say that the idea that your cancer may have its own agenda makes the whole thing much more frightening for many people. And I believe this may be one of the reasons why so many people fail to see their GP at the first sign of symptoms. They simply cannot bear the idea that they may hear the word ‘cancer’. Ridiculously, there’s just one ‘c-word’ covering 200 different conditions! And just about the only thing those 200 conditions have in common is that early diagnosis will vastly improve the chances of a good treatment outcome – and it will also make the treatment more affordable for the poor old NHS, which is creaking under the strain.
    Cancer is a fact of modern life. In reality, half of us are now going to get a cancer diagnosis in our lifetime. If that isn’t ‘common’ and ‘ordinary’, than I don’t know what is!
    Keep calm – it’s cancer, not Ebola!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Completely agree. The cancer just is there. The treatment, however, is another story. I have often felt that the battle is with the treatment, not the cancer. Maybe the sense of fighting the illness varies, though, depending on whether or not the cancer itself is causing pain. The overwhelming ‘sense’ of the experience for me, though, has been the sense of completely losing your dignity .. ‘not another round of fucking scans, of sitting in bleak corridors in a bad nighty with your arse to the wind and your stuff in a bin liner beside you …’ etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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