Questioning The “Kill” Metaphor Used by Cancer Doctors and Researchers

Posted on October 27, 2009 by


Far as I know, it’s a universally accepted thing throughout the networked world to say that we ought to “kill” cancer. Just from a google search, there are several non-spiteful “kill cancer” foundation type websites. There are a few articles about new cures that can “kill cancer.” In my public lecture cancer class at CSUN, a retired breast cancer expert nonchalantly hammered on with the phrase “killing cancer.”

Not many people give the phrase “killing cancer” a second thought.

Normally, killing of living things in this society is looked down upon. You can’t kill your neighbors, your neighbors’ dog, other animals, some plants. But when it comes to “killing cancer”, people won’t even blink when you say that.

If you’re not familiar with the works on metaphor by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Susan Sontag, and/or Thomas Kuhn, you’re probably thinking, “duh, were “supposed” to “kill” cancer.”

I fully understand that when people say that we have to “kill cancer” means that we have to get rid of and/or stop the effects of cancer on a living thing before it dies. I have no problem at all with “getting rid” of cancer or minimizing cancer’s effects on its human hosts.

However, I wonder how doctors, researchers, science writers and the media, schools, the public using the dramatic language of “killing cancers” plays into researchers and doctors’ thinking and problem solving. How do they perceive of the problem of cancer if they think it needs to be “killed”, and subsequently, how do they approach research and treatment?

Some guiding questions that I would eventually like to answer with some preliminary thoughts:

Does talk about “killing cancer” focus research interest on ways to “kill cancer cells?” Conversely, if the doctors/researchers did not talk about “killing cancer”, how then do they perceive the problem of cancer? Is it about “stopping” or is it about “mitigating” the uncontrolled growth of ‘abnormal’ cells?

The breast cancer expert told us about some guy who died by using microwave thermotherapy used to heat up the tumor in hopes of “killing” the tumor cells. Mission completed…the tumor cells were killed!

But unfortunately, the normal cells would be overheated as well and the dude died.

That guy seemed to think that “killing” the bad would cure him of his cancer. I wonder if that guy would’ve benefitted if he was told that it wasn’t about “killing” the tumors but about mitigating the effects of those tumors. Would that guy have gone to such drastic measures if he did not think that he had to “kill” those tumors?

Perhaps not.

If doctors and researchers perceive cancer as something that needs to be “killed”, does that mean doctors and researchers prescribe a “zero tolerance” treatment in their patients for invasive abnormal cells?

It seems like doctors and researchers have a zero tolerance treatment towards cancer or the malignant tumor. Unless they find the tumor benign, it’s like there is absolutely no way to “compromise” with it. With no compromise it seems like they limit the search to finding solutions for stopping cancer.

If they characterize their work as “stopping uncontrolled growth” does that mean their research would focus on simply “stopping” the deleterious effects of cancer? On the cons side, would describing the treatment without saying they needed to “kill” something bring less perceived urgency to the problem?

Obviously my little linguistic nitpicking sounds stupid, weird, and kind of a waste of time, given the busyness of researchers and doctors, the number of patients suffering through the disease, neither of whom could care any less about such semantics.

However, I think it’s interesting and somewhat important to get a window into how researchers perceive the problem and subsequently respond to it. Investigating their language use is just one way of getting into their thinking and thought patterns, and can inspire insights from both people interested in cognition and cancer researchers/doctors.