Poetry and medicine share a long history, something for which we can thank Apollo, the Greek god responsible for both healing and poetry. If you had any idea that metaphors are only the creativity of poets and poetic imagination, think again. Metaphors are common and pervasive in our everyday lives, influencing the way we think and act. Metaphors, which compare two seemingly unrelated things, are not only common in poetry and everyday life, but also in medicine. (Lakoff & Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980).
Consider the sports talk that dominates the televised football or hockey seasons. Sports metaphors are commonly used to describe experiences in our daily lives, for example, in companies, where employees are encouraged to be team players” or “run with a good idea.” When I was young, high school football games were not only popular, but the language of the game made its way into aspects of our teen-age dating lives, as when someone might “made a pass at you,” or behaved in a way that were “way out of bounds.”
Why do we use them? Metaphors are visual and illustrative, but they sometimes run the risk of creating stereotypes, confusion, or becoming clichés. Some, like sports and military metaphors are so common in our daily language, they are frequently used to describe the medical experience. Common examples include parental metaphors, “she’s too sick to know the difference,” engineering metaphors, “coming in for a tune up”, or the commonly used military metaphor of cancer as a “battle” to be fought and won. Nevertheless, metaphors are essential in our ability to describe and convey the experience of illness—and not just for the patient, but for the physician as well.
Dhruv Khullar, MD, in a 2014 article, “The Trouble with Medicines’ Metaphors, “published in The Atlantic, stated:
The words we choose to describe illness are powerful. They carry weight and valence, creating the milieu in which goals of care are discussed and treatment plans designed. In medicine, the use of metaphor is pervasive. Antibiotics clog up bacterial machinery by disrupting the supply chain. Diabetes coats red blood cells with sugar until they’re little glazed donuts. Life with chronic disease is a marathon, not a sprint, with bumps on the road and frequent detours... Military metaphors are among the oldest in medicine and they remain among the most common. Long before Louis Pasteur deployed imagery of invaders to explain germ theory in the 1860s, John Donne ruminated on the “miserable condition of man,” describing illness as a “siege…a rebellious heat, [that] will blow up the heart, like a Myne” and a “Canon [that] batters all, overthrowes all, demolishes all…destroyes us in an instant.”
As Khullar points out, “…we’ve internalized these metaphors, so much so that we often may not recognize how they influence us.” Nevertheless, they are important and necessary to help convey what is difficult, at first, to describe, offering a shorthand way of making sense and communicating the experience of serious illness. Just as we use metaphors to communicate to our friends and others, physicians use them to help patients understand the ramifications of their illnesses. Interestingly, Khullar cited a 2010 study finding that physicians use metaphors in nearly two-thirds of their conversations with patients diagnosed with serious illness. In fact, the doctors who used more metaphors in explaining medical conditions were seen as better communicators. Why? Because “patients reported less trouble understanding them, and felt as though their doctor made sure they understood their conditions.”
Metaphors get our attention. They offer us a vivid way to communicate in an understandable way our experience of serious and life-threatening illnesses, whether patient, physician or care-giver. If you explore any poetry of the medical experience, you’ll discover it is rich with imagery and metaphors that resonate with your own experience. For example, I have often used Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” with its extended metaphor to encourage writing group members to explore their metaphors used describe the experience of diagnoses and treatments.
Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles—
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound…
(In: Blue Horses, 2014)
Donald Hall, in his poem, “The Ship Pounding,” creates a powerful, visual metaphor of a great ship to describe the hospital and his experience of the final days spent with his dying wife, the former poet, Jane Kenyon. He first describes going to the hospital to visit his wife:
Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship’s massive engines
kept its propellers turning…
At first the tenor of the poem feels almost hopeful:
The passengers on this voyage
wore masks or cannulae
or dangled devices that dripped
chemicals into their wrists.
I believed that the ship
traveled to a harbor
of breakfast, work, and love…
When the infusions
are infused entirely, bone
marrow restored and lymphoblasts
remitted, I will take my wife,
bald as Michael Jordan,
back to our dog and day.
But Kenyon’s illness is terminal, evident in the final lines, and as her disease progresses, his trips to the hospital become anxious, as he and his dying wife return to the hospital:
…I listened in case Jane called
for help, or spoke in delirium,
ready to make the agitated
drive to Emergency again
for readmission to the huge
vessel that heaves water month
after month, without leaving
port, without moving a knot,
without arrival or destination,
its great engines pounding.
(In: Without, 1998))
“The Ship Pounding” is a moving and visceral image offered by Hall, one that makes experience of the narrator and his dying wife readily understood.
I often return to the wonderful book by former literary critic, Anatole Broyard, who died in 1990 from prostate cancer. Entitled, Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death (1993) Broyard also explored the use of metaphor to think about and describe his illness:
Always in emergencies we invent narratives. . . Metaphor was one of my symptoms. I saw my illness as a visit to a disturbed country. . . I imagined it as a love affair with a demented woman who demanded things I had never done before. . . When the cancer threatened my sexuality, my mind became immediately erect.
Medicine continues to advance and offer us much more precise understanding of medical conditions and diseases, yet “metaphor,” as some authors have stated, “remains essential” as a way to convey the experience of illness. As Broyard remarked, “Metaphors may be as necessary to illness as they are to literature, as comforting to the patient as his own bathrobe and slippers.”
What metaphors have you used to describe your illness? How did they change as your condition changed?
- Think about the ways in which you have used metaphors with family, friends or your doctors, to describe your experience of serious or debilitating illness. How have they helped you understand and communicate?
- Explore the different metaphors that describe your illness or condition. Begin with a phrase, for example such as “Cancer is a…” or “Living with heart failure is like a…,”or “A heart attack is like…” and finish the thought, noting what image or word emerges. Remember, write quickly, without editing. Set the timer for five or ten minutes and keep your pen (or fingers) moving. Generate as many comparisons or metaphors as you can. Once you’ve finished, read over what you’ve written. What surprises you? Do you discover any unexpected insights to your feelings? How do your metaphors you navigate and explain your illness to others?
- Try writing a poem or narrative using the metaphors to describe your experience of illness or disease.
- “Physicians who used more metaphors were seen as better communicators.” True or False for you? Has your physician used metaphors in communicating aspects of your diagnosis? If so, do any stand out? Were the metaphors useful in helping you understand your illness?