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Changing Your Vocabulary To Drop Your Risk of Cancer

The words we choose shape our response to illness


by Sarah Mahoney

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Few people make it to midlife without having watched someone close to them “wage war against” cancer. We believe our angry, ass-kicking vocabulary gives us power against a relentless disease, but these pervasive metaphors ("fight” and “battle” are among the top 10 verbs used to describe cancer) shape the way we think about illness, says new research from the University of Michigan. 

Bellicose language may make us less likely to take sensible steps that prevent cancer in the first place, says David Hauser, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at the university, and lead author of the research. “The bulk of cancer prevention behaviors, which include curbing the consumption of alcohol and salty foods and not smoking, involve limitation and restraint,” he tells Life Reimagined. “None of them fit with an enemy metaphor that promotes power and aggression.”

When 300 participants read one of two stories about colon cancer—one with a handful of warlike metaphors, the other without—those who read the militarized version said they were less likely to limit their red meat intake or curb their drinking.

What surprised Hauser most is how “small differences in words were enough to change the way people thought about cancer prevention behaviors. In all of our studies, when we wanted people to think about cancer as an enemy, we only included a few extra words that related to the enemy metaphor. Those few extra words were enough to nudge people to think about cancer as if it was an something that they had to fight, and see limitation-related prevention behaviors as being less effective.”

Besides trying to curb the hostile vocabulary, Hauser thinks more education is the answer. “Much of what people know about cancer fits with the enemy metaphor, so naturally, that sticks around,” he says, but it contradicts much of what experts now recommend, such as “watchful waiting” for some cases of prostate cancer. “The more things that people know about cancer that don’t fit with this metaphor, the less likely people are to think about illness as an enemy.”

While Hauser’s work focuses solely on cancer, in theory, he says he would expect the same results might apply to other health problems.

So whatever your health situation, the answer might be to focus a little less on fighting it, and a little more on understanding it.

Photo Credit: Tom Weber/Getty