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Language and Stigmatization: The Case of Cancer and HIV/AIDS Research Paper

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Language has been referred to as one of the strongest weapon that one can use to manipulate the views of the public. The proper use of language can make people have a perception that is completely subjective and hence affecting their moral judgment of an issue.

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This is the reason why the media plays a great role during political campaigns and policy formation and mobilization. This use of language and its styles like metaphor has also played an important part in the formation of the public’s views on several social and economic problems causing adverse effects. One of the phenomena that have experienced the biasness of language has been diseases. To this extend, this paper will point out whether metaphoric reference has been used to manipulate the society’s view of HIV/AIDS and cancer and whether this has contributed to stigmatization.

Much has been written concerning the alarming spread and effects of HIV/AIDS in the society and the effects of cancer and the position of its victims and how to care for them. These topics have received much attention from researchers and other scholars. One of the most notable scholars to have come up with a debatable issue concerning this topic was Susan Sontag.

In her works, Illness as a metaphor and Aids and its metaphors, Sontag gives arguments concerning the position of language metaphors and its effects on the victims of the diseases in terms of stigmatization. In her argument, Sontag believes that language has been used in a negative way and thus caused stigmatization to the victims of HIV/AIDS. To identify whether this stance has a basis or not, we shall one by one examine her points that support it.

In her opening remarks, Sontag argues that the metaphorical reference to diseases has a detrimental effect on the patient. She therefore argues that the best way to refer to a disease should not be based on the metaphoric position for this creates a rather negative moral judgment concerning the disease. Instead, the best way to regard a disease and what she also terms as the best way of being ill should be pure, resistant and free from metaphoric thinking.

This makes her strive to dismantle all the mysteries associated by the HIV/AIDS disease and also cancer. In her argument, Sontag purports that some diseases like cancer and AIDS have been referred to as punishment from God to individuals and to the society as a whole. Whose still, the diseases are viewed to be a blight to the social garment of the society. Such views, she argues, can lead to profound damages on the sides of the people who are suffering from those diseases.

So what does she take to be the best way of regarding a social disease? In her argument, she feels that a disease should be taken as one not in relation to the cultural or social contextual beliefs. For example, she argues that AIDS should be taken as a disease that tempers with the white cells of the body and thus reducing its immunity while cancer should be regarded to as an abnormal multiplication of cells causing the development of a tumor.

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This argument is very founded because of several reasons. One of the reasons is that the brain plays a very important role in the perception of an issue. As Starhawk (2008) puts it, imagination can be used as a great weapon for change. This means that through transforming the perception of an individual through imagination, it is possible to achieve a completely new point of view for the same issue. With such ill positioned perceptions concerning cancer and Aids, it is possible that imagination might have played an important role in the formation of these perspectives of thinking. Through media descriptions and depictions in the movies, the society could have developed a permanent imagination that cancer is blight to the society.

This leads to stigmatization. One whose imagination has already developed such a view will always think of a victim of cancer as person who engaged in emotional repression. In addition, the patient himself will develop a negative attitude towards himself thus worsening the condition. This shows that through metaphorical regard to the mentioned diseases, the society can develop the negative attitudes through their imagination while the patient will also will suffer in an unfavorable way as compared to one who could have accepted his position in a more non metaphorical view. This confirms Sontag’s argument.

But some critiques have seen a different side of the same story. In their argument, human beings at some given moments look for answers for inexplicable mysteries from history. Such inexplicable mysteries include diseases. To critically evaluate a phenomenon, human beings are sometimes forced to examine their surroundings so as to come up with some sense in form of relationships between nature and the phenomenon.

This allows them to make some sense from the situation and thus come up with a metaphorical relationship between the phenomenon and the relative natural aspect. This therefore forms the basis of argument that metaphorical thinking does not just spring from nowhere. Instead, there is a basis from which the society develops the metaphor. In her argument, Sontag (1999) posits that this type of metaphorical formulation does not originate purely from history.

It has its basis in imagination. Although she does not discard the fact that a human being cannot think without using metaphors, she argues that there are better metaphors to use while some metaphors should be avoided for the sake of the community. Basing on Starhawk’s argument, by accepting the mind as a weapon for change, it is possible to use this weapon to change the perception of cancer and AIDS in the society.

Further in her argument, Sontag (1999) purports that the society continues to cause stigma in terms of bureaucratic labeling of groups of people. This he attributes to the society’s inability to differentiate between illness and disease. In her argument, Sontag believes that through labeling people affected by a disease as ill, the society seems to give a death sentence to the patients. This is evident in the cases of AIDS and cancer.

A diagnosis of any of these two usually sounds like a judge’s pronunciation of the word, “You are sentenced to death.” This perception of the people as ill before they are actually ill leads to death of the people socially and hastens their steps towards the real physical death. With the formation of such perspectives, the disease and the person will be seen as one, something that Sontag finds as a negative aspect of the society. To her, the disease does not offer a basis for identification. This results into prejudice for the infected people and makes them develop a sense of guilt and shame. Ability to separate the two aspects of disease and person can be useful tool in combating negative metaphorical regarding of the infected and thus eradicate fear and blame.

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This form of perception leads to more complications. As Sontag put it in her first argument that regarding of a disease without a metaphorical relation can lead to a healthier illness for the infected person and the death sentence perception on the diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and cancer have been clearly portrayed in the study by Hall, et al (2008). In her study on fatalism of breast cancer, the women’s perception of cancer highly influenced their acceptance chances to be screened.

Among the most common causes of the disaster were, “…Psychological, social and cultural factors that affect beliefs, attitude and knowledge regarding cancer.” This can show that through the societal influence which creates the association of cancer with outright death makes people fear to be screened lest they become part of the labeled group destined for death.

Such metaphoric association of diseases causes a fear and shame. This is what Sontag is arguing. And true to her words, governments have also fallen victims of fear that resulted from the metaphoric perception of cancer. Due to the established view of this disease, some arms of the British medical realms came up and opposed the idea of introducing a campaign that would cultivate a positive approach to cancer in its citizens (Toon, 2007).

In this study, the community was found to posses a very grim image of cancer. Most of the people had views that cancer was a deadly and painful disease a perception that was established within the community as a result of their experiences from family members and friends. This called for a Malcolm Donaldson’s decision to introduce an education program that was meant to challenge the established experiential position of the people of Britain.

This supports Sontag’s argument that a society’s regard of a disease in a metaphoric point of view leads to stigmatization. With the citizens of Britain having a deep seated fear for cancer, with established myths and metaphors of pain and no medication, the citizens would automatically refer to cancer victims as already dead and thus regard to them in the same manner. Donaldson’s initiative to come up with a form of education that could counter this “painful” perception of cancer was simply a measure to counter the metaphorical perception of cancer.

This is exactly what Sontag is advocating. Avoiding to refer to diseases in a metaphoric point of view or if one cannot avoid the metaphoric thinking, he should avoid certain metaphors. This is what the education was meant to do. It was meant to ensure that the citizens of Britain avoided the negative metaphors and myths.

This was not only experienced in Britain. The United States also proved that the word cancer was a very delicate subject to cover. After a long period where people viewed cancer as a dread disease, the image of the disease had been negative with the community believing that cancer was a death sentence. The Hollywood took it as an initiative that eventually led to a great victory where the community accepted the disease. as it is explained in the research, breast cancer ceased to be a closet affair and acquired an open and free nature within the citizens.

This campaign served as a tool through which the stakeholders used to fight stigmatization through changing of the original views of the population that were completely marred with negative metaphors. The study shows that by doing this, people would have the courage to engage in voluntary cancer testing that would result into more laboratory experiments that would offer a remedy, and the government would engage in more funding of researches which would eventually result into converting cancer into a manageable disease.

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Prior to 1971, most Hollywood movies had failed to identify with cancer with the fear of what feelings this would elicit in their audience. The government thus realized the fear and embarked on the campaign that would later change the metaphorical perception of cancer as a painful disease with no cure to a commonplace issue (Lederer, 2007).

In regard to AIDS and cancer, Sontag (1999) identifies the negative metaphors and myths associated with them as a great impediment to treatment. She argues that these two diseases have been painted a picture of grim and in all their societal approaches, the two have never had a positive metaphor. In her argument, she cites syphilis and tuberculosis as diseases that at some points were associated with positive myths.

In its case, tuberculosis was seen as a “positive enrichment” of the character of the patient while the syphilis dementia was seen to be a sign of creativity. Unfortunately for AIDS and cancer, at no point have these two experienced the positive side. In the case of AIDS, the victims have even been taken not as victims but the perpetrators! They have been viewed as bad people who have gotten the disease as a result of their bad behavior. According to Sontag, this leads to stigma and also hinders the patients’ effort to seek for treatment.

This point is clearly echoed by Hall et al (2008) in their study concerning breast cancer. In this study, fatalism was identified to be one of the greatest impediments to screening to diagnose breast cancer. The research which was based on the sample collected in 2003 showed that although white women accounted for a hire incident rate of breast cancer, the black women accounted for a higher age–adjusted mortality rate.

To be precise, the ratio of age-adjusted incident risk stood at 125.7 to 119.2 for every 100,000 women at the favor of black women while the ratio of age adjusted mortality rate stood at 25.4 to 34.4 for every 100,000 women at the favor of the white women. This was attributed to the disparities in the screening tests which could lead to early detection for better measures to be taken. This research also proved that the difference was not as a result of genes or any biological differences between the black and white women.

Although some agencies attributed the difference in the screening to poverty and lack of education, appropriate measures were taken like reducing or completely eradicating the costs of screening, increasing accessibility and expanding knowledge on the importance of screening but the disparities still prevailed. This led to the identification of other factors that could lead to the disparities. It was at this point that fatality concept was found to be playing a great role in the creation of the disparity.

What, therefore, is the relationship between this study and Sontag’s argument? This study identified that the role of psychological, social and cultural factors in the individual’s formation of knowledge, beliefs and attitudes about cancer is great. The established attitudes then lead to the individual’s acceptance to have a screening. According to the research, the society’s perception of cancer in a metaphorical relation with pain and death and that its diagnosis meant that the patient had no power to reverse the outcome transformed to fatalism.

Consequently, this has resulted into a variable that is culturally specific and independent that affects the individual’s seeking for medical care. This study therefore confirms Sontag’s argument that the society’s approach and myths constructed to metaphorically refer to a certain disease might as a result form a very negative view of the society and thus result into stigmatization and lack of the patient’s morale to look for medication.

In her effort to show how the use of language has highly contributed to the stigmatization of the people suffering from AIDS and cancer, Sontag (1999) highlights the use of words like an epidemic, a plague, an invasion, and pollution etc among the greatest contributors of the metaphorical regard of the diseases. The spread of AIDS and cancer was described as an invasion while sexually oriented diseases like syphilis and AIDS were referred to as pollution.

In the historical context of AIDS, the population having failed to understand the real cause of this disease sort to get answers for its causes. Eventually, they resorted to the belief that the disease was a form of punishment for what is referred to as over indulgence and perversity. There having been no scientific explanation for the disease, the religious lot took advantage of this and concentrated on the formation of a fear to the society. This cultivated non scientific approach deepened the fear of contracting AIDS and hence contributed highly in the facilitating of the epidemic metaphor.

Sontag eventually winds up her argument on the note that what is happening is a purely human creation. It is the mental picture created from the inside of us while regarding the patients that leads to a win or loss in the war against cancer and AIDS. As long as the negative metaphorical relationship between the disease and the people’s perception persists, the war against these diseases will remain a losing war as people infected by them will continue being stigmatized.

What the society needs will be love. This should be taken as the fifth sacred thing as purports Starhawk (Starhawk, 2000). If love is taken as a sacred thing, the society will hold onto it as an invaluable treasure. They will not trade it for anything else. Not even their lives. This is because something sacred is usually held as the yard stick from which all aspects of judgment are based. As she purports, “…what is sacred become the measure by which everything is judged.” If the society can judge the people suffering from these illnesses with love, the metaphors used will cease to be negative. Instead a positive approach will be struck as related to the diseases.

In conclusion, the arguments posed by Sontag are bare great weight in the human being’s effort to combat stigmatization. If the society will strive to form metaphoric positivism in their regard to illnesses like AIDS and cancer, nothing will stop them from achieving a stigma free society. Without a metaphor like death sentence or ugly words like epidemics and plagues, the new breed of children will not grow up with the knowledge that AIDS is an epidemic or rather the diagnosis of cancer means that one is going to die painfully and inevitably.

If the society will refer to cancer and AIDS just like they do with other diseases, from a scientific point of view, the younger generation which has not been contaminated by the established myths will live in a stigma free society knowing that AIDS is a disease of deficiency in immunity and cancer is a disease caused by abnormal cell multiplication resulting into a tumor.


Hall, Allyson, Khoury, A., Lopez, E., Lisovicz, N., Avis-Williams, A., and Mitra, A. “Breast Cancer Fatalism: The Role of Women’s Perseptions of the Health Care System.” Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved. 19(2008): 1321-1335.

Lederer, Susan. “Dark Victory: Cancer and Popular Hollywood Film.” Bulletin of History and Medicine. 81(2007): 94-115.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Picador, 2001.

Starhawk. The Fifth Sacred Thing. New York: Bantam, 1993.

Toon, Elizabeth. ” ‘Cancer as the General Population Knows it.’: Knowledge, Fear and Lay Education in 1950s Britain.” Bulletin of History and Medicine. 81(2007): 116-138.

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