Nearly 40 years ago, the call for a “War on Cancer” rallied the nation behind a cause and reinvigorated cancer research. Is a battle cry still the best way to build such support? Does militaristic language capture what’s going on today in research laboratories and hospitals throughout the nation?
These are important questions to consider, says Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. “As a famous politician said, ‘Words matter.’ Language sets our view and determines the path we’re going to take as we deal with any issue, be it cancer or some other social or health issue.” While battle imagery once had the power to galvanize, it may be undermining anti-cancer efforts now, says Fox Chase president and chief executive officer Michael V. Seiden.
“We’ve made a lot of progress with a lot of different cancers, but when we use vocabulary like ‘war,’ people want to know, ‘Did we win or lose?’” Seiden says. “What ends up happening is, as the public—through sources such as foundations and the National Cancer Institute—invests billions of dollars in cancer research and treatment and sees that their neighbors are still dying of cancer, that counts in the war vernacular as a loss. They might think, ‘We’re spending all this money and we’re still losing; why should we keep trying? Let’s pull the troops out.’ ”
But that’s a short-sighted view, Seiden says. Instead of talking about combat with a foe that must be conquered if we’re to be considered successful, we would be better served by looking at cancer as a complex tapestry that we’re unraveling strand by strand, increasing our understanding as we see how each thread fits into the whole.
“Consider that modern humans have existed on the planet for, say, 100,000 years,” Seiden says. ”We made no progress against cancer in the first 99,950, but in the last 50 years we tripled survival for some cancers, increased it tenfold for others, and even cured some cancers. We’re doing all kinds of things that were unimaginable even 25 or 30 years ago. Because of this progress, life is going to look totally different for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”
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