Cancer as a battleground

I listened to a really interesting podcast of Radio National Australia 360 Documentaries entitled Cancer as a Battleground http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/cancer-as-a-battleground/4156650

In the developed western world the dominant discourse of cancer is as a battleground. This was really started in US in 1971 with the appropriation of $100 mill to launch a war against cancer. There was a belief that cancer, a major burden of disease, could be defeated in much the same was as other major diseases like smallpox, polio etc. It only needed enough money to find the magic cure. So the war on cancer, like the war on drugs and the war on terrorism became an easy slogan to garner our attention and justify large amounts of public funds to create a voracious research machine.

The weapons of war, chemicals, radiation and biological are deployed against the bad cancerous cells inside our body. The focus is on ridding the body of these alien cells and thereby allowing the diseased person to survive.  Treatment is constructed as a battle of good versus evil with all the power of the artillery available to the modern medical system waged against this evil.

In this podcast it is pointed out that we don’t question the war on cancer as we question other wars and without this debate we are caught in an earlier more naïve view of war like World War 2; one which is seen as goodies versus baddies and can be won with the baddies being defeated.

“ We start to run, swim, bake, grow moustaches, wear pink, have afternoon teas etc to fight the war – like nationalist buying war bonds during war.”

We love war stories and admire war heroes. In the battle against cancer there is a whole machinery for the construction of suitable heroes. We particularly look to celebrities. The breast cancer industry has constructed a number of celebrity heroes such as Melissa Etherington, Farrah Fawcett and in Australia we have

Kylie Minogue, Olivia Newton John, Jane McGrath and Belinda Emmet. The thing that all these women have in common is that they are beautiful, blonde, famous and rich and all present a pretty, polite, packaged face of breast cancer.  In Britain Jane Gooding – Big Brother contestant went from being regarded as a loud mouthed racist bigot to a hero when she was diagnosed with cancer. Women living with breast cancer feel they can’t possible live up to these heroes, who make it public that you are not doing it right.

We like to hear about heroism but we don’t want to talk about defeat. The medical profession often finds it very difficult to talk about death. “Our doctor told us that Angela would be off the trial. I asked him what I should do now. He said well you should make an appointment in 4 weeks time but don’t make it yet, what do I do in the meantime well you should get your wife’s affairs in order.  Then it hit me he was trying to tell me that my wife was going to die. All this code I think why cant he just talk to me honestly one adult to another”

We create a hierarchy of heroes, with some types of cancer more sympathetic.

“Surrounded by breast cancer sea of pink, my aunt with lung cancer was envious of support, she felt guilty as people assume she smoked and therefore brought her own cancer on.”

Talk of battle turns inwards into the minds and bodies of patients. Patients go to all ends to win this war. Similar spirit of ANZAC, spirit of patriotism, brings people together to construct hope.Pick a fight with you cancer – game on – patients speak of their bodies as the enemy to be battled.

“Being positive can cause trouble because people can feel that if they are not perpetually positive then they are letting themselves, their families, their doctors down.”

“Language of battle makes it hard to accept defeat.”

“We talked about everything except that she would die. When she died she had a pile of books titled you can beat cancer next to her bed”

“Her battle meant that I could never say goodbye.”

We seem less prepared for death than ever. If we don’t battle what is left is just the uncertainty of death and is that too terrible to face.

There is also an additional narrative that people cause their own cancer by they way they live their life, they have drunk too much alcohol, smoked, not exercised enough or else as Louisa Hay has argued not managed their emotions properly; they have repressed their anger, been too stressed or anxious.

This simplistic, black and white view of cancer is imposed on all people with cancer. As a woman with breast cancer I found myself feeling guilty that I had caused my cancer, which left me feeling powerless and lacking confidence in my own body. In this frame of mind I had limited confidence to challenge the onslaught of the medical system as it deployed its weaponry against my body.

I have found that by engaging with my body through the use of a fusion of creative arts, movement, painting, poetry, and photography, I have been able to reconnect with the power and wisdom held within my body and my intuitive right brain. I have been able to tap into the many complex layers of my female body, which has assisted me to accept my cancer, to make sense of the cancer treatment, to accept my changed body and to live my life as I want to live. I have been liberated from the battleground.

Using creative arts I have been able to explore the messy, confusing side of cancer. The simplistic battleground narrative does not allow space for questioning motives, strategies or indecision. There is no time for delay and the pressure is placed upon you to jump on the medical conveyor belt and not get off until you are cured. To be cured of breast cancer means to look like you used to so the aesthetic decision of whether to have breast reconstruction is included in the treatment.

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