Anything that threatens our very livelihoods deserves retaliation — or so we tend to think. But what if that thing isn’t something we can interact with, like a mugger or a foaming dog? What if it’s nothing more than a rapidly multiplying set of cells growing within our own organs? Do we fight back?

If the data are any indication, a new study from the University of Michigan encourages people to fight, just not in so specific terms. When patients use the language of war metaphors — battling cancer in the hopes of beating it — people tend to stray from many of the restrictions that come with cancer treatment, such as curbing the consumption of alcohol and red meat. Even though they should be surrendering certain behaviors, an aggressive mentality puts them on the offensive, increasing their risks.

"Fight and battle are actually among the top 10 verbs used to describe cancer," David Hauser, study co-author and a UM doctoral student in psychology, said in a statement. "Constant exposure to even minor metaphorical utterances may be enough to make enemy metaphors for cancer a powerful influence on public health — with unfortunate side effects."

Hauser and his co-author, Norbert Schwarz, conducted three studies to investigate the role war metaphors played on people’s perceptions and intentions. The first study showed words like “fight” and “battle” made people less likely to self-limit certain behaviors, while the second and third studies showed people were less likely to stay on top of their monitoring and treatment.

This was problematic for Hauser and Schwarz. People weren’t just assuming a powerful role in their cancer treatment; they were cavalier about it. Invigorated with a new sense of determination, people saw things like dietary restrictions and rest as counter-productive. Wars aren’t won at the dinner table with a plate of lean chicken breast and steamed broccoli, people seemed to say. And they’re certainly not won on the couch. Wars are met head-on.

Taken alone, the first study doesn’t pose much harm to patients, the authors concede. If people aren’t eating as well, but still getting their necessary dosages of medicine at the proper intervals, treatment can move along smoothly. But the combination of poor adherence to recommendations and slacking treatment means people are far less likely to win their supposed battle — even if the emotion it’s charged with helps them persevere.

"Hearing metaphoric utterances is enough to change the way we think about a concept," Hauser said. "When we hear the phrase 'win the battle against cancer,' it forces us to think of cancer as if it's an enemy that we are at war with."

But cancer isn’t an enemy. It’s a mistake in a complex biological system, and we don’t fight mistakes. We fix them. Which means rest and proper diet aren’t our weapons, but our tools. We should try to keep as many at our disposal as possible.

Source: Hauser D, Schwarz N. The War on Prevention Bellicose Cancer Metaphors Hurt (Some) Prevention Intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2014.