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Stating a Person Lost Her/His Battle with Cancer Is Insulting!

Stating a person lost her/his battle with cancer is insulting!

Many people are tired of all the war metaphor usage that goes on in Cancer Land. I am weary of it, too, and avoid it whenever I can. I realize all the fighting and battling words and labels work for some people and that’s fine.

But one war metaphor that really needs to go is when a person dies from cancer, and it’s then stated in the obituary and elsewhere that she/he lost her/his battle with cancer.

I mean, come on. Surely we can dig a little deeper and come up with something better than this to say!

There are lots of cancer language traps, but surely we can avoid this one.

The overuse of this one boils down to just plain laziness, does it not?

Whenever I hear a journalist, or anyone for that matter, say something like, so and so lost her courageous battle with cancer, it literally makes me cringe. Again, this is one war metaphor that really needs to go.


Primarily, it’s the winner/loser connotation attached to these words that is so troubling and many others have written about this already. It comes down to the simple fact that dying from cancer does NOT make you a loser.

It can’t be stated often enough:  Patients do not fail treatments; treatments fail patients. (Barbara Brenner)

And why this emphasis that Cancer Havers be courageous to the bitter end, and what does that even mean anyway?

When you really stop and think about this, it is offensive is it not to say someone lost her/his battle with cancer?

Even if it’s not offensive to you personally, it’s likely understandable to you how it could be so construed by others.

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As I’ve written about before, the phrase bothers me so much partly because one of the last conversations I had with my mother was about this very thing. She was really sick at the time and pleaded with me not to say in her obituary that she lost her courageous battle with cancer. I promised her we wouldn’t and we didn’t.

At the time, I didn’t think too much about why it mattered so much to her. I’m not sure if it was the courageous part or the lost the battle part that bothered her so much. I should have asked her, but I didn’t.

Clearly, for whatever reason, it bothered her enough to start a conversation about it at a time when she no longer did a whole of talking about anything.

When a prominent person or celebrity dies due to cancer, how many times have we all heard journalists, news anchors and the like write or say, ______lost her courageous battle with cancer?

Talk about tired and worn out phrases…And these are supposed to be “word people”.

And when an “ordinary” person dies from cancer, it’s the same thing. If you read obituaries, time and time again, you will read that so and so lost her/his courageous battle with cancer. 

Why not just ditch the winner/loser messaging altogether?

Why not just say, _____ died from breast cancer, lung cancer, heart disease, injuries sustained in an accident, or whatever the cause was? And yes, even when talking about suicide, I would go so far as to say it’s okay to come out and state,  _____died of suicide, self-inflicted wounds, or whatever a family feels most comfortable with. Being forthright might eventually help reduce the stigma that suicide often brings to families.

I find it fascinating that we use and reuse some words and phrases over and over and at the same time we work really hard at avoiding other words. We go to great lengths to avoid using the ‘D’ words; death, die, dying, dead.

Maybe we shouldn’t work so hard at avoiding them.

Maybe just stating the simple, clear and honest truth would be better.

I think it might be.

Because stating that a person lost her/his battle with cancer is downright insulting.

What do you think?

Does this particular cancer language trap bother you or not?

What would you suggest be said instead?

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Stating a person lost her/his battle with cancer is insulting!

Johnathan Gault

Tuesday 21st of May 2019

I agree with 100% with Ellis W. Furthermore, the liberal PC attempt to change a culturally acceptable statements or words of consolement based one's limited definition of the word Battle. To be hung up solely on the generally accepted first definition of the word battle as a physical fight or engagement between two or more people or forces; rather than the second definition of 'fight or struggle tenaciously to achieve or resist something'. I am watching my wife of 26 years losing her battle with cancer. Yes, it is a battle; major surgery, Non stop chemo, radiation for the last two years, the cancer is winning; and, she is still fighting. There is no glory in fighting, no moral points for giving up. The true friends of Linda Boberg will, hopefully not, one day say she died from from cancer and that's ok. The day my wife dies...she lost the battle. Nancy, at the next funeral if your doubt of offending someone: say nothing, sorry for your loss, or better yet, stay home with your views.


Tuesday 21st of May 2019

Johnathan, I am sorry you and your wife are going through this. I respect your viewpoints. Thank you for sharing them.

Linda Boberg

Wednesday 10th of January 2018

I wholeheartedly agree. Just say "Linda died of breast cancer" or whatever. Let me people know what I died of, not that I fought it (although God knows that one does fight.) And don't say I'm courageous. I think this is ever more infuriating to me. I am what I am. I did what I felt need to be done in order to be well. I didn't think I was showing courage. That's fine if you want to think that about me, but don't patronize me by telling me that. Thanks for all the good words!


Friday 12th of January 2018

Linda, Patronizing - that's exactly what it is. Thank you for adding to this discussion.

Carolyn M

Wednesday 16th of August 2017

I feel exactly the same way about the "losing" bit, for all the reasons stated here. But I have another gripe, which irritates me to the same degree, with the "battle" part of the expression. A person develops cancer (or any other debilitating disease), and chooses to receive treatment for it or not, if treatment is even available. Many considerations go into that decision. There is no "battle" -- you receive treatment or not, and you live with the disease and possibly the treatment, and it either relieves you of the disease or it doesn't -- there is no battle. A person either survives the illness or simply dies as a result of the disease's impact on the body.


Thursday 17th of August 2017

Carolyn, You make good points. Thank you.


Sunday 16th of July 2017

You are absolutely 'spot on' on how annoying the trite and insulting metaphor is. First of all, it is NOT a battle with cancer (and I went through male breast cancer and 14 years later am A-ok). If someone has you on the ground and is bludgeoning you with a baseball bat (in other words with clear control and advantage), that is NOT a battle,, you are being beaten up. Pretty much what cancer is.. Being swung at with a 'baseball bat' just doing everything one can to ease the blows and suffering - that is NOT a battle, as cancer doesn't even provide a 'fair fight'.


Monday 17th of July 2017

Ed, Good way to illustrate cancer with your baseball bat analogy. Thank you for sharing your insights. Much appreciated.

Cindy Sanders

Sunday 26th of February 2017

Having lost a husband to cancer and being a two time survivor of cancer i have no problem with the phrase. Believe me, my husband fought that disease with all he could and so am I. It IS a fight, I think so I have no problem with saying that he lost his fight and I am still fighting.


Monday 27th of February 2017

Cindy, Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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