By Angelica Ingram
When Haliburton’s John Patterson was diagnosed with malignant melanoma he turned to his sister-in-law Alanna Mitchell for help.
Patterson who has faced cancer once before was diagnosed just shy of six years ago.
“This was a different matter because melanoma is a different kind of cancer that’s pretty aggressive” he said. “I’d met many people who had cancer … and here it was on my doorstep.”
The community advocate said he received a significant amount of support and positive messages from friends and family following the diagnosis as well as advice.
“One of the things I was getting was a whole lot of input from people about friends they’d had or people they’d read about who had done this that and the other thing when they got cancer” he said. “And that part frankly was somewhat overwhelming.”
Patterson knows the input came from a place of love however the volume was difficult to sort through which led to him turning to his sister-in-law.
“So I asked her to help me sort through just the volume of stuff” he said. “She took on that role for me and it was really very helpful indeed.”
An award-winning journalist and author Mitchell has tackled many scientific topics and undertaken complex layers of research in her line of work so she decided cancer research shouldn’t be any different.
“He [Patterson] just said look I have this diagnosis and it’s so difficult to understand … this very complicated medical system” she said. “You know you’re in shock I think … when you have that kind of diagnosis.”
The request turned into research which in turn resulted in a new book titled Malignant Metaphor where Mitchell examines the disease which can often be deadly and the myths that surround it.
Following the news she got from her brother-in-law and then her daughter Calista’s diagnosis with the disease Mitchell wrote the book because as she writes in the introduction “cancer barged into my life.”
“It’s one of the risks of having a sister-in-law who’s a journalist you end up being a research subject” said Mitchell. “He [Patterson] said to me one time this is not the kind of memoir I wanted written about my life.”
Published in September 2015 the book takes the reader on a journey starting with Patterson’s diagnosis.
Patterson who has lived in the area for many years said the idea for a book didn’t come until later in his cancer journey and was Mitchell’s idea.
“She being a writer said this is the stuff of which books are made” he said. “I didn’t immediately jump at the possibility.”
After some conversation about the approach Mitchell wanted to take Patterson was on board. The trust and comfort he had in his relative helped him make that decision he said.
“If you trust the person you’re working with it makes all the difference in the world. That was in fact the key factor … I knew that she would make it lively … and I wanted it to be personal without being intrusive on anybody.
The fourth book Mitchell has published Malignant Metaphor was an emotional and personal ride for the writer but an eye-opening one as well. Looking for answers it was challenging for Mitchell as there is a vast amount of cancer research going on.
“Medical literature is incredibly contradictory” she said.
The idea of writing about cancer had been on her mind for some time and an article that Mitchell wrote for The United Church Observer also titled “Malignant Metaphor” paved the way for the book.
“They got really excited about this whole concept so I wrote a piece for them” she said.
Once she started writing about cancer Mitchell found she couldn’t stop and the book just came pouring out of her.
“It was this book I hadn’t really known was in there and then it just came out” she said.
Mitchell traces the history of cancer becoming “the big bogeymen” back to 1950 when a diagnosis started to have a stigma attached.
“Most of us if we get that diagnosis we feel like we’ve done something wrong. That the diagnosis of cancer is a billboard for our secret sins” she said.
Described by the writer as a piece of investigative journalism Mitchell’s goal with the book is to try to open a conversation about cancer that she believes is lacking in our society and take away that stigma.
“We think that it is much more common than it is. We think that there are triggers for it that may or may not be actually true. We think that there is a code of conduct that we have to follow to prevent cancer … there are ways of lowering your risks for developing certain types of cancer but this whole discourse about preventing cancer I think is very worrisome” she says.
“What we’re talking about here is a phenomenon that has been misrepresented in our society” she says. “It’s a terrible thing there’s no question this is a terrible suite of illnesses that all derive from a single cell that goes wonky in our body … even though it’s so devastating our society makes it even more devastating than it is by shrouding it with all sorts of other emotional baggage.”
Since the book was published Patterson has received positive feedback about the information in it. He has heard stories of it shared with cancer support groups and those dealing with the disease.
Patterson was involved with the project along the way reading draft versions and seeing each chapter as it unfolded.
However that still did not prepare him for when the book was finally completed.
“I was somewhat overcome with amazement that this whole journey both my own personal journey and the creation of the book all of a sudden there it is in your hands … it’s just kind of overwhelming. I found it frankly a very emotional experience.”
One of the many issues Mitchell addresses in the book is the language that is used when talking about cancer.
Words like “battle” or “fighting” are often associated with those who are diagnosed with the disease and it is those descriptors Mitchell would like to see eliminated from common use.
“I was just reading the obit pages … and again there’s all these valiant people who have died after another valiant battle with cancer and I’m not sure that language is very respectful” she says. “As if somehow if you fought harder you’d still be here and that’s just not the case.”
Patterson said the book has made him more conscious of the language used with cancer.
“It’s so easy to fall into the battleground terminology in your own thinking and in the way you express things to people” he said. “It need not be dealt with in the way it’s very often dealt with.”
Getting cancer or dying from it is not a failure on someone’s part and it’s that message Mitchell wants to resonate with people.
“I think there are a lot of really damaging misconceptions out there in society that are unquestioned … and I would like to start talking about that” she says.
Looking back on the experience Patterson was grateful for Mitchell’s suggestion of turning the experience into a book and the manner in which she dealt with the subject.
“I just loved her metaphor about my relationship to it [cancer] has not been like a war but rather more like a dance. People have really picked up on that” he said.
“I like that and other people have responded extremely positive to that.”
Malignant Metaphor is dedicated to those “dancing with cancer” a reflection of the writer’s attempt to change the language around the disease and help those dealing with it.
“From people who have experienced cancer or who have seen a loved one die of cancer I’ve been getting a lot of really moving feedback that this book has provided a great amount of comfort and relief to people so I think it releases some of the burden and blame that people feel when faced with cancer” said Mitchell.
Since the book was released Patterson’s cancer has returned however the community member is staying positive and jokes that perhaps the turn of events will lead to a sequel.
“I told Alanna don’t put that pen away.”
Malignant Metaphor is published by ECW Press and sells for $27.95. It is also available at the Haliburton County Public Library.