Two people having a conversation with an image of a knight in a speech bubble between them

Metaphors for Cancer Patients

Research has shown that metaphors can be helpful resources for talking and thinking about the experience of cancer. However, different metaphors suit different people or the same people at different times. There is another difficulty in using metaphors for me. English is not my first language, and I especially don’t have the “feeling” of certain English words. So when I have to use metaphors, I’m always passive and likely following others.

Paying attention to metaphors about cancer

After advocating for cancer, I noticed that metaphors are important and worthwhile to pay attention to. Some make people feel uplifted, but they can make other people feel uncomfortable. I’ll talk about two metaphors and how they worked for me. More importantly, I'll talk about some metaphor changes as I advocate my lung cancer experience longer.

Metaphor #1: "Journey"

I have used the metaphor “journey” since I started advocacy.

Some disputes

Some cancer patients don’t like this word because journeys are supposed to be, as I've seen, “fun and pleasurable and things people have control over.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word journey means “something suggesting travel or passage from one place to another.”

For me, cancer journey works!

I don’t think the word journey should be restricted to a trip or travel. The journey can be used as a student's journey, career journey, or cancer journey. "Journey" can mean "aimful" and purposeful, but it may not always be happy.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

Another phrase that I've seen which describes the cancer journey metaphor is “a rollercoaster with twists and turns .” No two people go through the exact same route.

The cancer journey is hard, but I take notice of the scenery

The cancer journey is a hard and not happy one. We do not volunteer to participate - we are forced into this cancer land. Since I’m on this cancer journey, no matter how hard and unhappy it is, I accept it and move on.

People not affected by cancer are puzzled and wonder how I’m so strong and fearless. I tell them: do I have a choice?

I have been on the lung cancer journey for almost eight years. It gets easier. Certainly, it makes me look up and take notice of the scenery. The world is beautiful.

Metaphor #2: “Fight” cancer

The word “fight” is another controversial metaphor, together with “battle,” “battlefield,” and “beat (cancer).”

“Fight” or "not fight:" that's a problem!

Some people think cancer patients are not doing anything except waiting for doctors to cure them. Others believe “fight, battle and beat (cancer)” suggests that either the patients win or the cancer does. How will a losing battle lift the cancer patients’ spirits?

Others think, for example, “I don’t intend to give up; I don’t intend to give in. No, I want to fight it. I don’t want it to beat me; I want to beat it.”

I used to like the metaphor “fight, battle, and beat cancer,” and I agree that they do uplift the spirit. But recently, I re-evaluated these metaphors.

Metaphor #3: "Dancing" with cancer

Last year, I wrote an article, “Dance with Cancer.” I talked about my 7-year experience with lung cancer, from dreading, to co-existing, to finally dancing with lung cancer. By the end of writing the article, I realized that having cancer is not a fight, but a relationship that I am forced to live day in and day out. How can I hate and fight with my own body?

Keeping a relationship with cancer

Lung cancer and myself are permanently bound together for life and death. Cancer is part of me, and I have to accept cancer. I always do my best for my diet, sleep, and exercise, which benefit myself and my cancer. However, this relationship is a stormy one.

Cancer is demanding, and I have to rely on targeted therapy drugs to keep my cancer at bay. For the first three years, my lung cancer has had the upper hand, and now I do, or now I’m content with co-existence.

Metaphor #4: "Working" with my cancer

Now I think of having lung cancer as more like working with cancer as partners. I respect lung cancer and never underestimate its power. After eight years, cancer becomes easier to cope with.

However, from time to time, I have to face up to cancer and hit it back head-on. This way, I can have a chance for longer survival.


The words “journey”fight”“battle” and “beat (cancer)” are the most often-used metaphors in describing the experience of cancer. Every patient’s experience is different. Even for the same patient, their experience is different at different times. As far as I feel comfortable and don’t intentionally offend anybody, I’m going to use these metaphors.


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.