Let’s stop fighting cancer.

The language of how we talk about cancer is unhelpful to the mental health burden of undergoing treatment of the same illness.

Haje Jan Kamps
4 min readMar 7, 2019

Battle metaphors and cancer are a disingenuous mix. I’d like to invite us all to give that side of things a rest.

Today, I woke up to a deeply sad message from Alex Trebek, delivered in his trademark calm and classy fashion, where he announces he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer:

I wish him all the best and I hope he is able to heal and recover quickly, so he can continue to fulfill his contract to the show for another three years, as he drily quips in the video.

The language of cancer

As you’ve probably observed if someone close to you is being treated for cancer, the treatment regime has two, often three, aspects. The most obvious aspect is the physical — surgeries, radiation, chemo, drugs; the whole medical machinery rolling into action. The second is the psychological — how the patient is able to face the incredibly difficult mental journey they embark on as they contemplate their own mortality and the illness itself. And finally, there’s the spiritual/religious element that plays an important part for many.

The language often used around the treatment of cancer might be helpful for the tactical aspects of cancer — the medical side of the treatment. But for the two others, it is problematic.

Trebek says “I’m going to fight this,” and “I plan to beat this disease,” and “We will win”. I fully understand the sentiment; he’s about to roll up his sleeves and do everything he can to get healthy again.

The language of cancer is the language of war.

While Trebek’s language is relatively mild, it hints at something that is pretty common in our society: The language of cancer is the language of war. It’s ‘the battle against cancer.” We hear “I’m going to kick Cancer’s ass.” It is “I will fight.”

Haje Jan Kamps

Writer, startup pitch coach, enthusiastic dabbler in photography.