Stop Saying People 'Lose' the Battle to Cancer

On Monday, The Daily Mail, reporting that former GOP senator and well-known actor Fred Thompson had died on Sunday, titled its piece: “Former U.S. senator and longtime Law & Order star Fred Thompson dies after losing his battle with lymphoma aged 73.”

The Daily Mail was only following in the tradition of journalists who report someone had “lost his/her battle” with cancer, giving one reason to ask: why use that particular terminology?

If someone “loses” their fight with cancer, does that imply that different actions could have been taken that would have enabled the victim to “win” the battle?

For the record, Thompson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2004, which was in remission by 2007, but a recurrence of the disease eventually took his life.

Does terming someone’s death the result of a “losing” battle trivialize the efforts made by medical professionals to help the victim fight the disease? For medical professionals, to term a patient’s death as a battle that was lost is a slap at their heroic efforts to prolong people’s lives.

In addition, does the use of such terminology exacerbate the difficulties sufferers undergo while they live their daily lives? In a piece for The Guardian, Kate Granger, who lives with cancer, writes:

"She lost her brave fight." If anyone mutters those words after my death, wherever I am, I will curse them. I would like to be remembered for the positive impact I have made on the world, for fun times and for my relationships with others, not as a loser. When I do die, I will have defied the prognosis for my type of cancer and achieved a great deal with my life. I do not want to feel a failure about something beyond my control. I refuse to believe my death will be because I didn't battle hard enough.

"I refuse to believe my death will be because I didn't battle hard enough."

Kate Granger

Michael Wosnick, a cancer researcher, pointed out that cancer is treated differently in the media from other diseases:

What other diseases or condition do we cede this kind of power to? My mother died a few years ago from acute respiratory distress brought on by H1N1. Did anyone say that she “lost her battle to a virus”? No, she died from a respiratory infection. If someone suffers lifelong hypertension and eventually dies from a heart attack, do we ever say in the obituary that he/she “lost his/her battle with high blood pressure”?

Then why do so many deaths from cancer get reported as “after a long struggle/battle, so-and-so lost his/her battle with cancer”? It’s not quite “blaming the victim” but it does have ring of placing the ultimate responsibility for having died in the hands of the deceased.

As Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor who died at age 47 from cancer, said at the ESPY awards in July 2014, “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”


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