On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero

Going to keep this one short, there is enough written about the limitations of fighting metaphors to last a lifetime (however long that is). Susan Sontag wrote Illness as a Metaphor back in 1978, since then many, many others have visited this territory. I was reminded today of Jay Rayners obituary for John Diamond (hat tip to Michael) and surprised to see it was 13 years since John Diamond died. I can remember reading his column and his book, years before cancer visited our family, and being humbled by his frank honesty, a quality also present in Kate Granger‘s writing in more recent times. The Metaphor in End of Life Care project at Lancaster Uni has also recently been exploring this in relation to death, dying and end of life.

So, why given all this am I still typing. To register my displeasure at the current Cancer Research UK campaign #WeWillFight. The campaign calls for people to ‘show cancer how they feel by sharing your fight faces’

While looking at Cancer Research UK resources for this post I have to confess it wasn’t easy to identify what the campaign was about, or the thinking behind it, but I did find this video [click to visit their site in a new window and watch] on The Bank website ‘We Will Win the Fight’. Wow, apparently The Bank produced this ad, with a ‘bold creative concept’….that personifies cancer with a menacing male voice and a soothing woman who will make it alright. To be honest I found this ad almost as nauseating as the #WeWillFight campaign, although it’s not clear whether they’re related or not.

Those of you who have read this blog for a while will know that my Dad lived with cancer for five years. He described his own experience as a fight, ex-navy and military through and through, the metaphor worked for him. At his funeral I gave the eulogy and felt like I had to address metaphor:


Dad didn’t lose his battle, or succumb to cancer; he stoically, bravely and steadfastly lived his death as he lived his life, with courage, dignity and a concern for others.

I think there’s a big difference between someone facing cancer choosing a metaphor that works for them, and a large well funded organisation using a fight metaphor to campaign with. I’m not convinced that Cancer Research UK should be encouraging people to ‘fight’ cancer, I’m really uncomfortable with the language and the implication. I have seen on twitter tonight that they ‘tested’ the campaign before launching. I accept that their focus group may well have said it worked for them, it doesn’t work for me. Oh and for the record testing ‘join the fight’ isn’t the same as implementing #WeWillFight.

The week after the centenary and commemorations of the start of World War One, with war raging in Gaza, Iraq, Syria should a cancer research charity really be encouraging people to share photos of themselves with fighting faces? I can’t help but feel this is an incredibly poorly executed campaign, almost lazy in its approach. Can imagine it now, the social media crew raving about the #nomakeupselfie campaign, which for those with short memories was not started by an agency or a charity, but completely by accident by a couple of punters. What verged earlier this year on a narcissistic trend is now becoming tired, it’s slacktivisim gone mad. I’ll watch and wait to see if Cancer Research UK can track and evidence their income as a result of #WeWillFight, or whether what they actually end up with is a short lived social media campaign of people posting pictures of themselves pulling ridiculous poses.

From my perspective the sooner this campaign is over the better, I can’t get past posting your picture online being more likely to indulge your self than ‘fight cancer’. If you really want to make a difference, look at what you can do to improve your own lifestyle; sure donate some cash, spend some time volunteering, do whatever works for you, but please don’t anyone ask me to post my fighting face and please don’t claim that you’re helping by doing so.

My small contribution to improving people’s experience of cancer, is this blog, and the posts within it. From my perspective the sooner we develop a more evolved language and understanding of cancer and illness the better, so feel free to join in the discussion.

For those wondering the blog title is a quote from Fight Club…it’s also worth remembering when you introduce fighting metaphors to cancer.

0 comments on “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero”

wisegrannie says:

Hugely agree.Terminology makes any other response to cancer open to cruelly destructive criticism & disapproval. People looked down on if they won’t “fight”.

Cancer Research UK says:

Hi George, thanks for your comments about our new campaign. We’re sorry if we have caused any offence in using fighting terminology. It was by no means our intention to do so.

Our new campaign is built around the concept ‘We Will beat cancer sooner’. It centres on us being at a turning point in the fight against cancer; where in the past more people died from cancer than survived, today half survive. We’re working to accelerate that progress into the future with our bold ambition for 3 in 4 people to survive cancer within 20 years. This campaign conveys a stronger sense of confidence in our vision, that with determination and conviction we will beat cancer sooner.

We believe that our fight against cancer is something that can be won and in order to do so we need all of the UK public to get behind our cause and ‘join the fight’ with us, showing that collectively, any action taken, will help beat cancer sooner.
We conducted consumer research prior to launching our new campaign and language such as ‘join the fight’ tested very well with the UK public – both close and further away from cancer.

The campaign sets out to demonstrate the collective fight against cancer and how important it is for everyone to get involved. Today, thanks to research funded by the UK public and everyone’s hard work and determination, we are starting to win our fight against cancer and two out of every four people with cancer will survive ten years or more. Sadly, we know this means that half of people will still not survive and our aim in using ‘join the fight’ as a call to action is recognising that there’s so much more to do done, and showing how the general public can get involved.

As part of this campaign, we’re asking the public to show they are part of the collective force in this fight by sharing their Fight Face – a selfie style image – through their social media channels using the hashtag #WeWillFight.

Fight Face is just one way that the public can get behind us. There are many ways that people can get involved and during the campaign we’ll be sharing these with our supporters.

Some important points made in this post.

Something that has concerned me increasingly is that, with all due respect to the sterling work carried out by charitable bodies, awareness-raising campaigns can risk trivialising problems and diverting attention from the difficulties actually faced by the people charities claim to be supporting.

Two members of my family have medical conditions that have resulted in them – and me – finding it difficult to lead what most people would consider a normal life. I have subscribed to charities that claim to offer support to people with these disabling conditions. But I can no longer read their magazines because they are full of gala dinners attended by celebrities, people cycling round the world or running marathons, people who have ‘fought’ and ‘won’ and other eye-catching stories. Nothing wrong with the stories, but they don’t actually make the slightest difference to families who don’t have enough money to live on or carers who can’t get someone to cover for them when they have a medical appointment. To me, they just add insult to injury.

I can understand why charities want to run appealing campaigns to raise funds, but also why ‘fun’ themes and inaccurate metaphors can alienate the very people they are campaigning for.

Jeanette Leech says:

I think it’s very irresponsible to invoke war / fighting imagery at this time (or any other time, really). It forces a very simplistic take on a very complex issue. It seems to suggest the ‘war’ is ‘winnable’ by guts and pluck, which is simply untrue. A straight spine, translating into a determination to see through treatment and to get support to maintain as much mental strength as possible – yes, of course these help. But even so they won’t ‘win’ in themselves. I also find it very uncomfortable that belligerent imagery is being so thoughtlessly invoked when people are living with the realities of war throughout the world. Cancer is horrible. But comparing it to war, historic or current, is comparing apples and oranges.

A charity such as Cancer Research UK should be working to introduce complexity and different narratives / viewpoints into living with cancer. As George rightly points out, this seems geared in to people’s narcissism rather than constructing anything that’s directly helpful to people living with / directly affected by cancer.

I don’t think we need more awareness of cancer, per se. What we do need is more awareness of the diversity of cancer experiences, and this, sadly, feels like a regressive step.

Trying not to swear or rant, but for the love of the wee donkey, how long is this shite going to continue? I mean first of all #nomakeupselfie – which ok was organic and did raise money. But here we go again with a rush to get another ‘viral’ campaign.

I feel like these charities think we are stupid. And who the hell do they have on their focus groups? My experience with several members of my family having cancer and my own personal experience is that it is time for a new narrative.

I think cancer charities have done their job well in the last 10 years to normalise and take stigma away from talking about cancer. Now that we are at that stage, it is time to allow a little more nuance into what we talk about. I am sick of looking at cancer charity websites who promote extraordinary people in all they are doing to ‘win’ the battle. Where are the stories from people (like me) who are struggling to go to work, manage appointments and keep some normality in their life? I feel the current cancer narrative lacks honesty.

I don’t want a battle, I just want a bloody quiet life, with simple support when I need it. The problem with fight/battle metaphors is that it can push vulnerable people into negating their real feelings. Even if CR_UK say that their campaign is aimed at wider society – to get everyone fighting/donating to them, the metaphor is still pervasive. I even had one HCP say to me on Friday – have you got your fight face on today? I leave you to imagine how I answered that…

Fight metaphors with positive psychology is a real toxic mix. But that is a rant for another day!

Thanks as always for your thought provoking post George.


jesslinworld says:

I tried to take this up with Breast Cancer Care after one of their annual pink jamboree consciousness raising, money raising weeks. They did respond but did nothing – the bottom lines were ‘raising awareness’ and fundraising for their helpline etc (very laudable). The feelings of people left with the aftermath of breast cancer had to be sacrificed to those ends. Trouble is that some of those people then feel they are not showing the right attitude
because they don’t want to wear pink glitter or do a run! As others have said, cancer is much more complicated than that and people with cancer and their fsmilies are focused on just keeping going.
Cancer UK’s campaign is to raise funds and I think other considerations are secondary to that.

catatsea says:

Absolutely spot on. The sooner we all evolve enough that dying is just living the better.

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