What is it about?

Complex issues are sometimes best explained by using a metaphor -- whether a verbal or a visual metaphor. Cancer is such a complex issue. In this paper we analyze 30 short (max. 10 minutes) non-fiction animation films made under the auspices of experts to explain cancer or to help people, specifically children, cope with it. We analyzed the metaphors both in the visuals and in the voice-over track.

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Why is it important?

A metaphor is a mini-model: it has complete internal logic. But each metaphor necessarily highlights certain aspects of a phenomenon and hides others. It is thus important to be aware of what a specific metaphor emphasizes and what it downplays. In research on verbal metaphors on cancer it was found that dealing with cancer was most often metaphorized as a BATTLE/WAR or as a JOURNEY -- where the first is much more grim and one-dimensional than the second. We also found the BATTLE/WAR to be dominant in our 30 animations, and were particularly struck by the fact that cancer cells were often visualized (but never: verbalized!) as monsters. There are reasons to believe that a patient thinks their doctor understands them well (and consequently trust their doctor, and are more likely to be true to therapy prescribed) when the doctor (and other care-givers) uses the same metaphors as they themselves do. Hence an understanding of how metaphors function, both visually and verbally, in medical instruction films, may help improve communication between oncologists and their patients. Moreover, the animators commissioned to make the films may want to reflect on the implications of the CANCER CELL IS MONSTER metaphor.


Corpus research on visual and multimodal metaphor in moving images is still rare. One of the reasons is that protocols for the identification and interpretation of such metaphors is still being developed and finetuned. Apart from the insights our paper provides into cancer metaphors, we think that our explanations of how we conducted the research project, including its limitations, will help future researchers who want to work on metaphor in film.

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Facing cancer: metaphors in medical animation films, Visual Communication, May 2024, SAGE Publications,
DOI: 10.1177/14703572241229061.
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