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.