I have some experience with cancer, though happily I’ve not had the disease myself.
In the early 90s I ran the UK communications for the European Commission’s cancer education programme, as well as helping the specialists at Hammersmith Hospital with their Help Hammer Cancer campaign. Back then breast cancer in particular was a devastating killer. The treatment might have given you a few extra years, but the disease nearly always came back, and would then be fatal.
So when in 2010 I was standing next to my girlfriend when she was told that the tumour in her breast was large and malignant I immediately feared the worst, which is how most people still react when they first hear the diagnosis.
(I’ve written about the experience in an extended piece which you’ll find here. Just to set expectations, it’s my story, not Nancy’s, since I was not in a position to write hers, and though she’s still alive and thriving, it’s not a happy story: our relationship had been on the rocks before the diagnosis and the piece charts my slide into depression as I tried to support her despite the persisting “ordinary” relationship problems and the break-up they eventually engendered.)
One particular low point, described in the piece, was in the reception area waiting for Nancy to be taken through to the theatre to have a breast removed. We were sitting among the other patients, in various stages of treatment, some with hair, some not, all looking wan and sick (though Nancy herself at that stage looked fine).
We were tense. I certainly was apprehensive, and my emotions were pushed every which way but a good one by the presence of Heart radio, a relentlessly cheerful DJ chattering into the empty spaces of the room, talking banalities with Emma Bunton, punctuated by bouncing chart music.
So when I found myself this morning in a public park with my daughter, who was about to take part in a Race for Life event, the presence of Heart radio as an anchor for the proceedings didn’t exactly swell my heart.
I’m not knocking Race for Life. I think it’s great that it happens, that it raises so much money for vital research, and not least that for those who have lost someone through cancer, participating in this kind of thing can bring a sense of meaning, at a point where any of us might struggle to feel that death (and life) could be meaningful.
I understand too that these events need to be upbeat and energetic, but as a general point I don’t understand why socially we seem to have become afraid of silence, why we need to flood public spaces with mindless pap music, as if all the world’s a supermarket.
It was eight o’clock on a Sunday morning for God’s sake. I have more experience of cancer than I do of eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.
But this was only the beginning, and it set the stage for my real point here.
I get irritated these days whenever I read journalists reaching for a martial cliché to describe the experience of cancer, so it was all the more depressing to hear the announcers at a Cancer Research event talking throughout in Rambo-like terms, even suggesting at one point that the fund raising would enable us to “kick cancer’s butt”.
Perhaps it’s not all their fault. An official Cancer Research video shown on the big screen tried to say that cancer had an enemy, called research, which would “beat it”.
This is dreadful on every level. Cancer is not some demon. It’s a disease. When you have cancer you’re not “battling” or “fighting” it. You’re actually trying to find a way to deal with it, which means living with it. Meanwhile the healthcare professionals will be doing everything they can (and they’re usually brilliant at it) to help you feel as comfortable as possible with the treatment, and not that you’re in a war.
On a more fundamental, philosophical level, it doesn’t help anyone to present our existence as some kind of battle between life and death, because in those terms there’s only ever going to be one winner. Death’s not the enemy. It just happens, to all of us sooner or later.
Perhaps those working in research see their work as a battle, and that’s fine, but the rhetoric needs to stay in the lab, because the rest of us have different needs.
Thanks to their work, most women can now expect to get past breast cancer, and that’s a truly amazing turnaround in just twenty years. But the “kick ass” or “battling” vocabulary ironically only perpetuates fear, and fear if understandable is not a helpful factor when you’re trying to deal with the disease. Perhaps that fear seems useful to professional fundraisers, but it has consequences which are not acceptable.
It does indeed seem likely that in the not too distant future most cancers will be treatable. The progress so far has been pretty amazing. It’s time the rhetoric moved on as well.