If Anthropomorphising Cancer Helps, Then Do It


I was the one in three.

You know, from the cancer awareness adverts, “one in three people develops cancer in their lifetime.” I was the one in my three.

At seven years old, a tumour the size of an orange had made itself at home inside the warmth and comfort of my chest and was eventually outed as a non-hodgkins lymphoma. From the moment that diagnosis is made, you’ve got to have a strategy. Everybody forms a strategy, it’s the one thing that is going to help them get through the hell to come. From what I can remember, our family strategy was to match the endless amounts of drugs I was receiving with equal amounts of boundless positivity and normality. Having to have lots of time away from school? No problem, I enrolled in the hospital school and spent hours there. Losing all of my hair through chemo? No bother, I had a a huge selection of wonderful hats to wear. Being a child with cancer? No issue, just carry on as a normal child would. Despite the fact that everyone was feeling desolate on the inside, that was our strategy, that’s how we played it.

The dictionary defines anthropomorphism as the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object. Recently, I’ve spotted a few comments scattered across social media concerning the negative effects that might arise as a result of anthropomorphising cancer and I felt the need to comment. The reasons for taking exception to this process are varied; anthropomorphising is childish and patronising, it portrays those who die as not strong enough to have ‘fought’ cancer, it puts unnecessary pressure on sufferers… the list continues. However, I find these criticisms difficult to swallow because, as much as they can be understood and considered as true, we’ve got to remember that we’re talking about something incredibly frightening here.

For me, it makes absolute sense that cancer is frequently anthropomorphised. To do so makes it a tangible being, it means that cancer can exist metaphorically outside of the body in which it resides; it can be ‘othered’. This is something which is beneficial throughout the entire cancer journey because it is a state of mind that can remain stable and unchanging against the roller-coaster of physical and mental symptoms caused by months or years of cancer treatment. Designating cancer as an ‘enemy’, for example, provides a much needed point of emphasis and focus that is easily to visualise and hold on to. I’m sure my family and I did something similar to get us through those horrendous few years of hospital stays, blood transfusions, life threatening drugs, and countless operations. In fact, I anthropomorphised my appendix back in November when it decided it wanted out and I even anthropomorphised my tonsils just this morning on Twitter.

Most of us aren’t doctors, we don’t know the specificities of what’s occurring inside our complicated bodies when something like cancer comes along so we try to humanise it in some way, to make it understandable. Anthropomorphism allows us to do this.

I’ll be the first to preach that some of the social constructions surrounding cancer can be extremely problematic (the continued gendering and sexualisation of women’s/men’s cancers raises a lot of political questions, for example) but I really think that anthropomorphism is the wrong battle to fight. I can honestly say that, after hearing the phrase “lost their battle to cancer”, I have never thought of that person as weak. Why would anybody ever think that?! It doesn’t belittle their battle in any way. We all know how utterly horrendous cancer is, it has got enough gravity of its own that everybody knows what sufferers had to face, regardless of whether they came out the other side or not. If people find comfort in designating cancer as a “fight” or a “monster” or a “burden”, then let them do that.



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  • Interesting. I have to admit that I never even considered anthropomorphising cancer to be a problem as such, I think the idea of othering cancer seems fine for the most part. I do have a bit of an issue with some of the cancer campaigns though (and I’m aware I say this as someone who’s life has been fairly minimally affected by cancer). There was an advert which had various people insulting cancer, I believe the phrase “Cancer, you prat” was in there, I don’t know what the intended effect was, but it came off as a really poorly judged comedy sketch and it wasn’t until the actual charity’s name came up that I realised it was genuine.

    The other was an advert which showed a sort of metropolis, with little potato looking people living out their lives until these blue blobs started falling from the sky which made these people explode, it showed widespread panic, people running around screaming, politicians trying to reassure everyone, even a couple holding each other as they died. It then zoomed out to show a scientist looking guy dropping blue liquid into a dish and saying “Take that, cancer” and just for a moment I genuinely felt bad for cancer. I know how stupid that sounds intellectually, but the first emotional response it caused was sympathy. It didn’t strike me as an effective advertising campaign.

    I can see the value in making cancer into a tangible monster, but maybe there’s a danger of over-trivialising the issue. If a genuine cancer campaign looks like an episode of Brass Eye, there might be a problem there.

    • I agree that some of the cancer campaigns are SO problematic, not least of all because most of us are now aware of how bloody horrendous it is due to the fact that the majority of us have been affected by it in some way. Although I appreciate it’s difficult to try and elicit a response that is going to encourage people to donate money and the like. But in terms of people getting cross because the terminology around cancer usually relates to a battle of some sort, it just seems like a waste of energy in my opinion!