Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I didn't fight cancer, I've survived it (so far)

I was disappointed to read today,
The British Humanist Association (BHA) has expressed its sorrow at the death of Lord (Andrew) McIntosh of Haringey, following a long fight with cancer.
I wasn't disappointed over Lord McIntosh's death - he seems a perfectly decent chap, but I had no idea who he was until I read he'd died - but I was disappointed that whoever wrote his obituary for the BHA resorted to that old cliché about a "fight" with cancer. People don't fight cancer, or do battle with it. Some (like me) survive it, and others don't. And if you don't, it's not because you lost a battle or didn't try hard enough.

You read the same clichés in the press almost every time someone of note dies, and it really pisses me off. Independent columnist Christina Patterson, also a cancer survivor, wrote about cancer metaphors,
It was Susan Sontag, writing 25 years before she herself died of cancer, who warned of the dangers of "illness as metaphor". "Theories that diseases are caused by mental states," she wrote, "and can be cured by willpower are always an index of how much is not understood about the physical terrain of a disease."
Lord McIntosh was ill for a long time, apparently, but if he had any sense he didn't waste any precious energy fighting or battling cancer, which would have been exhausting and utterly pointless. If he was as sensible as we're led to believe, he'll have taken care of himself, got plenty of rest, and made the most of the time he had, in case he didn't have much more of it.

Oh, and the BHA's report is headed, "BHA mourns the death of Andrew McIntosh..." I know I'm being picky, but the BHA is an organisation, not an individual. It can't "mourn" anyone. Only those who knew and cared about someone who's died can mourn him or her, as I'm sure Lord McIntosh's family and friends do.

PS: Was reminded by a Twitter friend that John Diamond said, "Cowards get cancer too."

PS, February 2016: Jon Land in The Independent - "The four phrases we need to stop using about cancer - and the one we should use more often."


cinderkeys said...

If you haven't already, you should read Brightsided by Barbara Ehrenreich. The first chapter, "Smile or Die," is all about how people expect cancer patients to behave, and how cancer patients come to believe a failure to harness the power of positive thinking is as good as suicide.

Margaret said...

I've read reviews and heard her talk about it on the radio. It's on my list, thanks.

For anyone who hasn't heard about it, you can find out more here.

It reminded me of someone I know who once told me I shouldn't get angry - can't remember what I was angry about at the time. She was so buttoned-up that I felt she might explode one day.

Margaret said...

This is from the New Statesman's review of Ehrenreich's book,

'But Ehrenreich is at her most withering when tackling the subject that inspired the book in the first place. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, she found herself trapped in a cloyingly upbeat "pink ribbon culture", in which cancer "victims" become "survivors", the dead go unmentioned in favour of celebrating those who recover, and the illness itself is no longer a deadly injustice to which a cure must be sought, but a rite of passage, imparting valuable life lessons and beautifying post-chemo effects such as tighter skin and softer hair (that is, once it grows back). Even more sinister is the insistence that a positive outlook is somehow essential to recovery - a myth, "cobbled together somewhat imaginatively" in the 1970s, that Ehrenreich, a former cellular immunologist, wearily dismantles.'

Well, I did describe myself as a "survivor" too, but I've survived lots of things without thinking of myself as a victim in the first place.

katyarobin said...

the feel good metaphors about illness make me sick ;-)

they imply by reverse that the sick person lacks gumption for not engaging in 'warfare' with a disease process.
or it's a personal failing to give in, be ill or roll over and die

Ellis Nadler said...

Yeah, Ehrenreich talks sense

Sparroweye said...

I don't believe we get cancer because of what we do or don't do. Definitely our lifestyle (smoking etc comes into play) I do think living healthy is important. But saying that, I do think our personal thoughts and statements have energy. I do believe living under great stress is not healthy for our body. But do I think that angry people get more cancer, no. Do I think that negative thinking people give themselves cancer, no.

Margaret Nelson said...

20 Jan 2012: Etta James just died. Guess what? She "lost the battle" with leukaemia!