Changing the metaphor

By Jenn Watt

“Cancer’s resonance today lies in our perception that it is inevitable preventable and deserved.” – Malignant Metaphor: Confronting Cancer Myths by Alanna Mitchell

Cancer has taken over the North American psyche. It is one of the most feared diseases consuming vast amounts of time and energy and generating plenty of hand-wringing among the sick and healthy alike.

When journalist Alanna Mitchell’s brother-in-law John Patterson (founder of Abbey Gardens and well-known local philanthropist) received a diagnosis of malignant melanoma in 2010 he asked her to help him understand the path before him. Mitchell is a science reporter and is adept at navigating academic papers and biology jargon. She was ideal for the task.

What ended up coming of the partnership was the book released in September of 2015 which lays out what a knot we as a culture have tied ourselves in when it comes to cancer.
As the opening quotation states cancer has become such a bogeyman in our minds it has been allowed to become more than it is. We at once hold divergent beliefs that cancer will get us but we can also avoid it which leads to the third belief: it is deserved. Cancer has come to represent our vices and bad behaviour Mitchell writes. When someone gets cancer we ask: “Did she smoke or drink? Did he exercise enough?” We follow food trends racing for anti-oxidant labels and kale-laden snacks in the grocery store. We try to de-stress in order to avoid the disease that is most stressing us out.

But as Mitchell points out little evidence supports most of these trends. At best they represent remedies for risk factors for a small percentage of people. And contrary to popular belief cancer rates have not gone up in recent years. We’re living longer and eventually we are dying of cancer. (Mitchell points out that in Canada cancer is the biggest killer largely because we “do so well in treating heart disease leaving people alive long enough to get cancer.”)

Despite knowing what concept our society puts on the disease Mitchell admits to falling victim to the panic: when her beloved brother-in-law is diagnosed when her daughter finds a lump and when she herself is going to the doctor for an exam. The fear is that ingrained.

We would all do well to read Mitchell’s book or at least take the messages from it. Cancer is absolutely a devastating disease which touches everyone at some point. It should not however be treated as a monster lurking in the closet. We should not treat those with the disease as warriors who just need to eat better or smile more. People don’t die because they have less faith or will power than others.
Our fear has allowed us to create a dark frightening myth that does little to help those with the disease and diminishes quality of life for others.

As Mitchell argues we need to change the metaphor. Instead of a battle maybe it’s a dance each person can choreograph herself.