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Metaphor 'menu' for cancer patients launched by researchers

The first manual of expressions describing cancer has been developed by researchers to help patients make sense of their disease.

The metaphor 'Menu' follows research by Lancaster University based on the views of more than 100 people involved in cancer care and analysis of more than one million words.

Their ongoing work recommends that doctors and the media should avoid portraying cancer as a battle because this can be disempowering for terminally-ill patients and make them feel worse.

However, the researchers stress there should be no 'blanket ban' on certain metaphors — patients should be encouraged to use those best suiting them.

The menu and cancer-related language will be the focus of an event as part of the annual Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

Fairground rides, music and difficult journeys are among the themes the Lancaster researchers have drawn from for their metaphor menu. It has been developed with the help of Preston Royal Infirmary, St John's Hospice in Lancaster and charity CancerCare.

"Our study shows that metaphors are helpful when talking about cancer," says lead author Professor Elena Semino, from Lancaster University's department of Linguistics and English Language.

"But different ones suit different people, or the same person at different times. Describing someone as a 'fighter' can be upsetting for some patients but empowering for others. Our menu will stimulate new creative ways of talking about cancer."

The menu is targeted at patients, family carers and doctors and offers a choice of different quotes and expressions for people at all stages of the illness.

It has been piloted with prostate cancer patients who rated it 3.2 on a five-point scale of usefulness, with the fairground ride metaphor found to be particularly helpful.

The ESRC-funded Lancaster study on cancer-related language was based on interviews with people with advanced cancer, family carers and healthcare staff including oncologists. Online forum posts by all three groups were also analysed.

Violence-related expressions including 'battle' and 'weapon' were the most frequently used with journey expressions the second most frequent, according to the findings.

The researchers found substantial evidence of the disempowering effect of violence metaphors although some people did use violence expressions to convey a positive sense of themselves.  

The findings referenced in this release will be shared as part of an event entitled Cancer Metaphor Café on 7 and 8 November for anyone involved with cancer, whether personally or professionally. The event is part of the ESRC’s flagship annual Festival of Social Science and will enable participants to provide feedback on the metaphors in the menu.

Further information


Notes for Editors

  1. Event: Cancer Metaphor Cafe
    Organiser: Elena Semino
    Date: 7 and 8 November
    Venue: Storey Institute, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster LA1 1TH 19:30 to 21:00 on 7 Nov; and 8 Nov 18:30 to 20:00 at Friends House, 173-177 Euston Rd, London NW1 2BJ
    More Information: please contact Elena Semino
  2. The 17th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 2-9 November 2019 with over 470 events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, the festival provides an opportunity for the public to meet some of the country’s leading social scientists to discover, discuss and debate how research affects their lives. With a range of creative and engaging events going on across the UK, there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. The full programme is available at: Catch up and join in on Twitter using #ESRCFestival.
  3. The ESRC is part of UK Research and Innovation, a new organisation that brings together the UK's seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England to maximise the contribution of each council and create the best environment for research and innovation to flourish. The vision is to ensure the UK maintains its world-leading position in research and innovation.
  4. The ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policy-makers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective.
  5. UK Research and Innovation is a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.


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