Saturday, January 19, 2013

On Topic: Metaphors for Cancer

People react strangely to news of a cancer diagnosis. One of the strangest reactions by far was from a former colleague, who reacted quite angrily. Apparently, his niece, a young, 15-year-old girl, had recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer and was enduring gruelling treatment and taking time off from high school to get better. He exclaimed to me with fervour: "If cancer were a person, I'd punch it in the face!"

His frustrated reaction caught me a little off guard. It seemed immediately silly. With a furrowed brow and overcast eyes, I nodded in commiseration. Cancer is an asshole!, I tried to think. But, I couldn't. I didn't believe that. I was supposed to feel grateful and appreciative that this man was willing to take up arms and defend helpless victims like me, but I couldn't help chuckling at the futility of his remark. It was macho and frankly, a little pathetic. I walked away from the conversation disconcerted and confused.

I am still disturbed by my reaction. Cancer is frequently personified by fundraisers and the media, as well as by patients and survivors, and in making that comment, my former colleague was simply falling in line with the 'fight cancer' mantra. But that whole cancer as a 'battleground' or other war-like metaphors that position cancer as a malicious psychopath just doesn't resonate with me. My discomfort at the comment was likely rooted in my former colleague's imposition of a metaphor for my disease that simply did not make sense.

I am supportive of metaphors or other literary techniques for imagery's sake. They certainly help to make a cancer patient's experience more relatable and familiar. But one person's understanding of their disease may not be shared with everyone, and it's unfortunate that this mantra is so commonplace. My cancer doesn't have motives, free will, or spite. I find no solace in telling it to fuck off, or claiming I'm beating/fighting/standing up to it. It's no coincidence that these euphemisms are generally the slogans of fundraising campaigns.

You know what alternative to these metaphors I appreciate? Cure cancer. Treat cancer. Prevent cancer. Put cancer into remission. Support cancer research. Help cancer patients and survivors. These words are far less anger-inducing and aggressive and place the focus where it belongs - on science, research and support. If cancer really is the 'enemy', what's the best way to beat it? By studying and understanding it as it is, a disease borne out of human blood, tissues and genes, a disease that lives within us whether it is treatable or fatal.

When I imagine my cancer, I imagine a thoughtless, mindless machine operating exactly as it has been programmed to do, the result of two important mutations (thank you, the Emperor of All Maladies). Telling it to 'fuck off' doesn't reverse the mutations, and fantasizing about punching it in the face won't put it into remission. That's what science and research is for. And until that day, I hope we (survivors, supporters, researchers, advocates, clinicians, etc.) place our focus where it is needed, on helping people diagnosed with this disease cope with their anger and frustration, rather than building an entire community that thrives on it.

8 comments:

  1. I had never thought about the 'fight cancer' mantra in that way before. Thanks for providing another point of view.

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  2. It was remiss of me to post this with no mention of Susan Sontag's book "Illness as a Metaphor". She talks a little more about victim blaming but her comments are still relevant to a discussion on how we understand cancer and illness more generally. Check it out!

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  3. I've always felt this way about cancer "sloganeering." I feel awkward and embarrassed for people when they shout expletives at cancer, as if it's some entity with feelings. If anything, that sort of attitude hints at veiled fear. Sure, it's normal to fear and be angry at, but then realize it's more important to understand and, as you've done a great job with all your writing, demystify.

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  4. this is amazing!!!

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  6. Ive been scouring the Internet looking for a discussion on this topic. I've been going through treatment for breast cancer for the last 9 months and cringe every time someone mentions fighting or beating cancer. Oh and when I'm called brave or inspirational It's mortifying. I'm looking forward to reading more of your work. I love your perpective on 'caregivers crying' and other posts it's such a relief to find them

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