The United States has waged a war on cancer for more than 50 years, but no patient ever willingly enlists for service. Although evidence conflicts about the psychosocial implications of using war imagery terms with patients with cancer, researchers conducting a new study found that patients with nonmetastatic disease embrace using war imagery to place meaning around their diagnosis. The researchers reported their findings in Supportive Care in Cancer.

The researchers held qualitative interviews with 15 patients with various stages of breast, lung, or colorectal cancer about the words they use to describe their cancer experience. Participants’ responses fell into three themes: journey, war, and mystery.

All of the patients with nonmetastatic disease used war imagery metaphors to describe their experience, which the researchers said “facilitated meaning-making by promoting positivity and situating cancer within a larger life story.”

The few patients who reported that war metaphors were unhelpful all had metastatic cancer. During the interviews, they described being unable to relate to war imagery because they felt a lack of control over their disease and outcomes.

“The war metaphor should remain an integral part of cancer care,” the researchers concluded. “Disregarding war metaphors robs patients of an important framework for meaning-making—one that may promote strength, continuity, and resilience in navigating cancer.”

For oncology nurses, the findings demonstrate a need for open communication with their patients to understand how to best support them both physically and emotionally. Learn more about how our words affect our patients in ONS Voice’s “Word Choice Matters When Caring for Patients With Cancer and the Oncology Nursing Podcast’s Episode 65: Why Your Words Matter to Patients With Cancer.