On cancer as a ‘fight’

Yesterday former US President Barack Obama tweeted his support of Senator John McCain who has just been diagnosed with brain cancer. He was praised, correctly in my view, for his sentiments and support of a colleague from across the political divide.

However, that is where I have to part company with him.

Readers of this blog will know about my feelings about metaphors of cancer as a ‘battle’ or ‘fight’. So, when The Independent emailed me yesterday lunchtime to ask if I could write a piece about it, I was happy to oblige.

You can read my article here.

Judging from replies to my tweet that shared it, below, not everyone agrees with me.

Nevertheless, I am glad I stuck my head above the parapet on this one.


  1. I thought it was an excellent article, I couldnt agree more. I loath the tired, clapped out military metaphors rolled out in the media. They obviously haven’t experienced the illness themselves….

    Keep writing, you do it so well And speak a truth that resonates for many.

    Best wishes,


    (Breast cancer, 8 years ago – not a “survivor” nor someone who “fought” just a person who was ill, was treated and hopes she will remain well)

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You touched a nerve with your thoughtful article, Anthony. Some people have reacted in a knee jerk way but it’s my guess that you’ll have changed their thinking a little – introduced a glimmer of doubt – even if they can’t recognise that yet.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m glad you stuck your head up above the parapet too and I’m sorry you received some really unpleasant responses as a result. It seems we’re very much invested in these militaristic metaphors and hate anyone questioning them. And they need questioning–we’re always misguidedly waging war on something: drugs, crime etc. It’s largely fear of death behind our investment I guess, turned to anger which then needs an outlet? Thomas’ raging ‘against the dying of the light’ has never seemed to me an adequate response to death whatever the age. Not that anger doesn’t have its rightful place in grief obviously Sorry, starting to witter…

    Thanks for your thoughtful and generous blog posts

    Best wishes,


  4. Thanks for this article- as a pacifist who’s not had cancer but has studied immunology before I became an ordained priest I find the whole language that we use around illness difficult- It’s very easy to slip into the warfare metaphor, and yet the scientific language and models that I recall from my studies bear many similarities with it. Cancer is simply another illness rather than something worse, but it, and other conditions which have an impact on our auto-immune response are somehow worse because we feel let down by the body that should care for itself. Being a Christian doesn’t somehow make this instantly easier either, the condition is the same, and we still struggle with how to come alongside those who’re ill without dripping platitudes or ignoring their reality.
    I don’t feel comfortable with the language, but I’m not at all sure that there is a better analogy to use, or one that is as compelling to help raise awareness and support of research.
    Thanks for making me think, and for being willing to put your neck out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind and considered response. I really appreciate it. I’m pleased that you can live with the complexity of this issue. I’m pleased to have made you think about it. With very good wishes, Anthony

      Liked by 1 person

      1. since I wrote my earlier comment a friend has died from cancer, which until a few days ago was seemingly treatable. It wasn’t a fight- not unless you want to consider it a fight when one is hit by a bus. It just happened and the surgeons and doctors couldn’t stop it. It was sad, and a shock, and I wish it had not happened. But he was not a casualty of war, he is my friend who has died.


      2. I am so sorry to hear your news. Thank you for letting me know. I think your description of being hit by a bus is so true, on many levels.

        With continued good wishes Anthony


  5. Dear Anthony, I wish we all could express the thoughtfulness and compassion that your words embody. In an age of silliness and popular culture, we are so quick to misinterpret the true meaning of words rather than wrestling with them. I recall the trapped look in my father’s eyes as he succumbed to the melanoma over his heart and I experienced the same sensations when I had a radical prostatectomy for prostate cancer in 2000. My youngest daughter was only 5 at the time. You stripped away the superficiality surrounding our responses to cancer and have made us think. You are an iconoclast in the best sense of the word and that is an admirable trait in these times. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well said. I believe fear of death is the silent voice behind the shallow attempts we make to glorify the challenge of cancer. I’m guessing you’ve experience, as I have, the distancing that occurs, even with friends, when the news gets out that death is suddenly knocking on our door. While the sudden separation of those I thought cared for me made me angry, I later realized that their fears asked for my compassion.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I heard the Obama tweet on the radio and I thought of you immediately, before anything to do with The Independent or articles therein. That’s because you long ago accomplished one of the things a good writer can do for a reader. You allowed me to rethink and retest language, with the result that everything changed for me about this particular cliche. I never hear the phrase ‘battle with cancer’ (especially ‘LOST his/her battle with cancer’) without thinking of what you said, and how much you dislike this particular phrase.

    Battles? There is an ongoing battle with cliches, and I’m on your side. The words we use to describe things, in the popular media perhaps more than anywhere else, are important. Someone has to test and challenge them. It’s a poet-thing to do that (one of many).

    I’m not surprised some of the responses to your Indy article were angry. It’s an edgy subject, and it hits the crumple button for many people, so they’re replying out of their own painfully emotional whirlpool. Cancer creates a lot of whirlpools. It’s hard to talk about it without recourse to popular cliches. It’s hard for people to know what to say. They need more choices.

    The article itself is honourable, well-written and helpful. It creates more choice. It allows people to reflect, not leap to the old lie, or what feels like a lie to many people. Glad you wrote it. Glad The Independent commissioned it.

    You didn’t just stick your head above the parapet on this one. You are the parapet.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow! I was shocked at some of the responses you received on Twitter, although I shouldn’t be surprised as there are some people who enjoy using Twitter to take uninformed potshots at others. I’ve always been with you on this one Anthony. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for this Robin. Yes, it has been an interesting few days. I honestly thought I was saying nothing controversial. I really appreciate your support. As ever, Anthony


  9. Thank you so much for writing this. It is so helpful. I really hope that the language we use around cancer can be changed gradually over time. At least your critics will be thinking about it now.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Spot on Anthony. Not a fight. And we are not ‘brave’. Stoical/angry/frustrated/occasionally so boooooored! But being brave it is not. As you say there is no choice. Glad they asked you. X Rosie (Barrett) Sent from my Windows 10 phone

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Coincidentally, I have just written a blog post on my dislike of the ‘battle’ terminology. We live with cancer. And we can live well with it. Asking us to ‘fight’ puts pressure on us that we don’t need. We all find our own ways of minimising the threat and living life to the full. Thank you for your take on this!


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