Metaphors of war
These assumptions fall apart now that we are facing a real societal disease, an infectious disease outbreak. Coronavirus has made us reflect on what actions individuals should take in order to protect others. But cancer is not a contagion. When we decide whether and how to screen, we make intimate decisions affecting primarily ourselves and our family – not society at large.
Countless articles have been written about the use of metaphor in cancer, perhaps most famously by essayist and breast cancer patient. Sontag and others have been critical of the rampant use of war metaphors in the cancer community. Wars invoke sacrifice, duty, and suffering. The “battle” against coronavirus really puts the “war on cancer” in perspective. These pandemic weeks have terrified me. I have been willing to do anything to protect myself and others. They’ve also exhausted me. We can’t be at war forever.
When this current war ends, will the “war on cancer” resume unchanged? Screening will no doubt begin again, hopefully improved by data from the coronavirus natural experiment. But I wonder whether we will tolerate the same kinds of public health messages – and whether we should – having now experienced an infectious disease outbreak where our actions as individuals really do have an impact on the health of others.
After feeling helpless, besieged, and even guilt-ridden during the pandemic, I think many people would appreciate regaining a sense of control over other aspects of their health. Cancer screening can save lives, but it’s a choice we should make for ourselves based on an understanding of the trade-offs and our own preferences. When screening restarts, I hope its paternalistic dogma can be replaced by nuanced, empowering tactics more appropriate for peacetime.
Benjamin Mazer, MD, MBA, is an anatomic and clinical pathology resident at Yale with interests in diagnostic surgical pathology, laboratory management, and evidence-based medicine.
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