Going to War: Talking About Cancer

A "Living Cancer" exclusive by Paige Cowett, WNYC

President Nixon is credited with beginning the so-called War on Cancer when he signed the National Cancer Act in December 1971, allocating more federal dollars to cancer research. But the cancer war metaphor started long before that.

The Common Enemy Campaign Notes ASCC Nov 1929 0001

Image courtesy of the American Cancer Society

The American Society for the Control of Cancer, which became the American Cancer Society, was established in 1913. The goal was to raise public awareness about the disease which at a time was considered an almost certain death sentence and not discussed much in public. By 1914, the ASCC was referring to the “campaign” against cancer, a term that was a military term before it was used in the context of politics. In 1927, the ASCC officially adopted the slogan “Fight Cancer with Knowledge” and by 1929, was referring to cancer as the “common enemy” and their efforts as a “war against cancer.”

women's field army recruitment poster

Image courtesy of the American Cancer Society

The war motif fully crystallized when the Women’s Field Army was initiated in 1936 to distribute educational material and encourage public discourse about cancer risk. The recruitment material included images of brave looking women brandishing swords with mottos like “Don’t Fear Cancer, Fight It!” By 1941, the Field Army was over 34,000 officers strong and operated in uniform in 47 states and the District of Columbia. At that point, they claimed to have distributed over 3.5 million pieces of literature and engaged over 2 million people through their meetings and lectures. (Source: The American Society for the Control of Cancer, May 1941)

In 1945, ASCC became the American Cancer Society and in 1946, philanthropist Mary Lasker helped transform the organization into a major funder of cancer research, investing more than $4 billion since 1946.

don't fear cancer fight it

“Don’t Fear Cancer, Fight It!” By Jerome Henry Rothstein

Today, war is still the number one metaphor used in describing the effort to cure cancer. But it’s possible that thinking of cancer in the context of a war is problematic.

David Hauser is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and the author of a study about the effects of thinking about cancer as a war. “Exposure to this metaphor actually affects the way that people think about the disease,” Hauser told On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone. “When people see these war metaphors, it hurts the extent to which they want to engage in prevention behaviors.”


“Living Cancer,” is a companion series to Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies and is written and produced by WNYC.

The war metaphor suggests that cancer is something to attack, but cancer prevention behaviors like abstaining from smoking tobacco or eating fatty foods or drinking alcohol don’t fit into an attack strategy. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation–those are assaults on the cancer. Those fit into the war model, but carefully moderating your vices does not. Prevention is like diplomacy, employed before any kind of attack. But talking about it like a war obscures the notion that there are behaviors we might employ to help prevent cancer.

Another outcome is that in a war, there are winners and losers. A person who dies from cancer is described as having “lost their battle with cancer.” It is not a wholly inappropriate analogy, but it can also suggest that people didn’t “fight” hard enough. If only they had “fought” harder, they could have “won the battle with cancer.”For more on the origins of the ‘War on Cancer’ and the implications of how we talk about and portray the disease in film and in the media, listen to the On the Media special [http://www.onthemedia.org/story/on-the-media-2015-03-27] all about cancer.


This article was written exclusively for The Producers’ Blog by Paige Cowett, WNYC. “Living Cancer” is a radio companion series to the film “Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies.” Explore the series and return to The Producers’ Blog to see more exclusive content.

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