Why we need to stop using war metaphors to talk about illness

Louise Shanahan

Health Copywriter | Edinburgh

When I was 23, I had thyroid cancer

(If you’ve read my newsletter welcome emails, you’ll know that’s a big reason why I became a health copywriter.)

I can’t tell you how many people reassured me that I’d be fine because I was a ‘fighter.’ I’d ‘beat’ it.

I know they meant well. Personifying an illness means we can give it characteristics we’re familiar with. We can make it a knowable enemy and (hopefully) overcome it. We can take our power back.

At least, that’s the theory.

I was never in any doubt about my recovery because it was caught very early and was extremely treatable. So instead of feeling reassured when people talked about fighting or winning the battle, I’d think, “oh, they think I might not make it. NOW I’m worried.”

In the aftermath, I was wracked with survivors’ guilt. “People must think I fought hard, but I didn’t do anything.” Science, surgery and a little luck did the hard work. I was just along for the ride.

When we use this language, are we really saying that if someone dies from illness, they haven’t fought hard enough? Of course not.

Still, these macho war metaphors always seem to be the go-to for politicians and media commentators whenever a celebrity is diagnosed with a serious illness or there’s a health-related headline. They talk about “dominating COVID-19”, like it’s a wee gremlin we can just bully into submission.

Maybe that feels empowering. If only it were true

In fact, studies show patients who think of disease as the enemy are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and pain. Those who are encouraged to fight can feel obliged to hide their true feelings, which can affect relationships with their families and doctors. Worth considering I think.

Framing health through the lens of war also affects how we think about healthcare workers (and funding for services). When we talk about nurses and doctors “on the frontline”, we start to see them as soldiers, going beyond the call of duty and willing to sacrifice in the name of winning the war.

Language might seem harmless, but it frames the public’s expectations of what might be an acceptable or necessary loss, and lessens the urgency for investment and support.

Health isn’t always a win or lose, live or die, situation

More often, diseases are managed.

Symptoms reduced.

Health improved.

Strength gained.

Macho and militaristic language doesn’t suit a world that’s supposed to be about healing, support and care.

So if you write about health and disease, here’s the take away:

Health is complicated! Metaphors can be a handy way to make medical lingo easier to understand. But I encourage you to think about the language you’re using and avoid the war chat where possible (unless your client speaks in these terms).

4 ways to avoid the war metaphor trap

➡️  Have empathy (what would you want to hear?)

➡️  Listen to your audience and reflect their words

➡️  Screen for macho military metaphors before hitting publish

➡️  Avoid hyperbolic language (e.g. ‘miracle cure’, ‘victim’ or ’slay the virus’)

Remember, the most compelling copy speaks your reader’s language.

I know this is an emotive topic, but it’s one I think we need to keep talking about. I would love to know what you think.

First published on


23rd January 2021

Roland Cole

I knew something was wrong about covid reporting. And dialogue around illness. Couldn’t have put it in words like you did. No wonder people don’t listen much and the wretched virus won’t go away.

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