For the Week of January 31, 2016: Sports, Metaphors & Medicine

Here we go again.  It’s Super Bowl Sunday , and millions of people across the country will station themselves at the television set for the big game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.  It’s not just the annual excitement of the kick-off that has everyone’s attention.  Even this non-football fan has some interest in watching the “older” generation take on the “new,” and whether it will be Peyton Manning or Cam Newton who walks away with the MVP trophy.  The Super Bowl is more of a social event for me.   Despite my long history of shunning football games, I’ve sometimes been drawn in, whether because of the talk of “deflate-gate,” the showdown between an older athlete and a younger one, the entertaining half-time shows (I admit I tuned into Bruno Mars performance two years ago) or the sheer fun from the array of creative commercials.   Our neighbors are hosting a “Super Bowl Party,” and my husband and I will gather around the television set—at least for a while– to watch football with them, a past time I once knew as routine during my childhood.

Their jeans sparkled, cut off

way above the knee, and my

friends and I would watch them

from my porch, books of poems

lost in our laps, eyes wide as

tropical fish behind our glasses.


Their football flashed from hand

to hand, tennis shoes gripped

the asphalt, sweat’s spotlight on

their strong backs… 

(From:  “After School Street Football, Eighth Grade,” by Dennis Cooper, The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of The Next Wave, 2008)

Because of my father, football reigned supreme at our house, and touch football was a neighborhood game played nearly every evening summer and fall.  I watched in rapt attention.  I wanted to play the game my father loved so much.  I pestered him to teach me how to pass the pigskin so I might join in the game.  My brother was still a preschooler, so I won my father’s assent and began my earnest practice as my father coached me, a bemused look on his face, no doubt mystified by his elder daughter’s desires.   I worked hard to impress my father with my talent, but he was not the one to give me the praise I longed to hear.  Rather, the local high school football star, Dick King, visiting his girlfriend, stopped to watch our neighborhood gang play football one autumn evening.  Instantly overcome with shyness, but acutely aware of his presence, I fired the ball in a perfect long pass to my buddy Marty.  “Man,” I heard King exclaim, “That girl can pass!”  I was elated.

My football prowess was short-lived.  Like it or not, football was reserved for boys, and my father’s attention soon turned to my kid brother.  I felt a little bereft as I watched father and son practice passing and blocking– lessons that paid off a few years later as my brother and nephew excelled as college football players and coaches.   I no longer shared in the sports talk or the knowledge of the game, and by the time my brother was playing college football, I was living in Canada where American style football was not as popular as ice hockey or soccer.  When we returned to California many years later, the language of football was lost on me.  I rarely watched a  game on television; I was hopelessly unfamiliar with the teams or players and became a puzzlement to my football-crazed siblings.

I still don’t understand much more than the most rudimentary aspects of a football game, and as someone who suffered a severe concussion in my teens, I wince with every bodily collision.  But I’ll watch the Super Bowl with our neighbors and try to share their enthusiasm while I attempt to translate the onslaught of sports talk that will infiltrate our conversation.

Sports and military metaphors are all too common in our daily language, whether we’re discussing politics, sports competitions or cancer.  Dhruv Khuller, writing in The Atlantic, referred to a 2010 study that found physicians use metaphors in nearly two-thirds of their conversations with patients with serious illness.  Since Richard Nixon declared the “war on cancer” back in the 1970’s, military metaphors have dominated the language of the cancer experience.  Sports metaphors are probably a close second.  As Khuller points out in his article, “Over the centuries, we’ve internalized these metaphors, so much so that we often may not recognize how they influence us.”

Military metaphors, like “war on cancer, “ battle “ or “win the fight” dominate how we conceptualize and talk about cancer.   Sports metaphors, like “our team,” ”end run” or “game plan” are also used, and, like a war, connote winning or losing.  The advantage of metaphors is that they quickly “condense our experiences into shorthand, illuminate complex issues and can paint a thousand words” (“Cancer as Metaphor,” The Oncologist 2004, pp.708-716).    We tend to use the same metaphors for many of life’s normal challenges and struggles, not only the cancer journey.   For example, “We’re going to win this one; you’re out of bounds; tackle the problem head on; step up to the plate; be a team player;  soldier through it; run with a good idea, or make an end run.”  While our metaphors are visual and illustrative, they also run the risk of creating stereotypes or confusion.

Like many common phrases of everyday language, metaphors are overused, phrases we seek to avoid in writing.  Yet they do serve a purpose between doctor and patient.  Dr. Jack Coulehan, Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine and Senior Fellow of the Center for Medical Humanities at Stony Brook University, writes:  Medicine abounds in image, symbol, and metaphor, all of which live in the minds of physicians, as well as patients. The art of medicine is grounded in empathy, trust, and shared beliefs; much of its healing power arises from image, metaphor, and ritual intended to benefit the patient. (Foreword, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors, 2013).  As described by the physicians interviewed for the 2004 Oncologist article, understanding the metaphors used by a patient and his or her family provides a common language, a sense by the patient that the doctor understands and is “there with them.”

Whether military or sports-inspired, what metaphors do you find useful in your interactions with your doctor?  When life “throws you a curve,” how do you communicate the experience or your determination to overcome any obstacles to your friends?  Do you “step up to the plate?” and take action?  How often do “over-used” metaphors creep into your conversation as you try to describe an event or your illness and treatment to someone else?

Writing Suggestion:

This week, “the ball is in your court.”  Consider the metaphors you use in your everyday life or in your cancer journey.  What purpose do they serve?  Or, perhaps your physician uses metaphors to describe your illness and treatment in ways that don’t resonate with you.  Use that as a jumping off place for writing.

Or why not have some fun as you watch the Super Bowl broadcast?  Laughter is good medicine, remember?  Listen for the sports talk, the metaphors used to describe the game.  Note them.  They can become your starting point for writing.  You might even search for an old copy of Sports Talk: A Dictionary of Sports Metaphors,  and by Robert Palmatier and Harold Ray , published in 1989.  It’s full of metaphors from many different sports and games.  Or try another, Talk Sporty to Me, by Jen Mueller, a book that promises to help you using Sports as a bridge to build personal and professional relationships!

Shift from your usual writing and purposely use these well-worn metaphors or clichés to write a short spoof or poem.  Sometimes even the most overused language can ignite a little creativity and humor.  So bring on the chips and guacamole!  Write a few of those choice phrases down.  Use them as your prompts for writing—wherever they take you.

Poets are like baseball pitchers.  Both have their moments.  The intervals are tough things.–Robert Frost

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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