Study finds patients mock cancer to help them cope

Laughter really is the best medicine for cancer patients, new research suggests. 

Referring to their condition as ‘Mr C’, their colostomy bag as ‘baggy’ and even oncologists as ‘the Wizard of Onc’ helps patients get a handle on their illness and bond with other sufferers, a study analysing 1.5 million online forum posts found.

Many also use metaphors as coping mechanisms, such as referring to their tumour as a ‘beast’, their treatment as a ‘marathon’ and their experience as ‘hell’, the research adds.

Study author Dr Zsófia Demjén from Lancaster University, said: ‘Making fun of cancer helps some people on the online forum cope with serious, threatening and unpredictable circumstances, and to bond with one another.’

The researchers believe their findings may help people use metaphors sensitively when interacting with cancer patients. 

Cancer patients mock their condition to help them cope, new research reveals (stock)


The study found the most common metaphors used by cancer patients are:

  • Animals: referring to cancer as a ‘beast’ or themselves as a ‘chicken’
  • Sport: describing treatment as a ‘marathon’ or ‘sprint’
  • Religion: saying their situation is ‘hell’ or they are ‘in limbo’ while awaiting results
  • Restraint: feeling ‘trapped’ as a result of their treatment
  • Openness: such metaphors are used to describe patients’ ability to talk honestly about their emotions
  • Obstacles: referring to ‘hurdles’
  • Wholeness: particularly ‘lack of wholeness’ metaphors refer to the consequences of cancer
  • Machines: describing being on a ‘roller coaster’ or ‘treadmill’
  • Violence: such metaphors can be beneficial or harmful depending on when they are used, according to the researchers

How the research was carried out 

The researchers analysed online forums written by cancer patients.

Posts written by people diagnosed with late-stage cancer, unpaid carers who are related to sufferers of the disease and healthcare professionals were examined.

The researchers also interviewed the aforementioned three groups of people.  

‘Making fun of cancer helps people cope’

Results reveal certain cancer patients regularly joke about their illness.

Lead author Professor Elena Semino said: ‘For example, the cancer is referred to as “Mr C”, a colostomy bag as “Baggy” and an oncologist as “the Wizard of Onc”.

Dr Demjén added: ‘Making fun of cancer helps some people on the online forum cope with serious, threatening and unpredictable circumstances, and to bond with one another.’ 

Cancer patients are thought to joke about their condition to create a sense of community with other sufferers.

Metaphors commonly have an animal theme, such as calling cancer a ‘beast’ or describing themselves as a ‘chicken’ rather than brave.

Sports-based references are also common, such as describing treatment as a ‘marathon’ or ‘sprint’, which suggests patients acknowledge they require resilience during therapy.

Other common metaphor themes include machines, obstacles and religion.

Professor Semino added: ‘By exploring systematically the metaphors used by patients, family carers and healthcare professionals in the context of cancer and the end of life, we hope to increase healthcare professionals’ awareness of their own and others’ uses of language, so that they can adopt more sensitive and effective communication strategies with patients and their families.’

The findings were published in the book ‘Metaphor, Cancer and the End of Life’.