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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why the "War on Cancer" doesn't work

We Americans like declaring war on nouns –  drugs, terror, and of course, cancer. (I’d like to declare one on flagrant misuse of the apostrophe, but that’s just me.)


And a thousand cancer patients said, "No shit."

Aside from things I've said before about the problematic nature of the word survivor, and the idea of someone "winning" against their disease,  this study unveiled a new issue: they found that patients in the “war” group were less likely to engage in preventative behaviors, and general wellness. Because painting cancer as an external enemy ("An unstoppable rebel force," to quote Meet the Parents) rather than a part of our bodies, changes to way we approach it

This is interesting, and walks this really fine line. I am anti-patient blaming: it’s not the patient’s fault for getting sick. This might seem obvious, but there are real stigmas with certain diseases. For instance, with lung cancer there's an idea floating around that patients who had smoked deserve whatever cancer they get. That they don’t have a right to have feelings of anger or sadness, because they made their own bed. (And the even more intensely stigmatized disease, is of course, HIV/AIDS. But let’s stick to cancer, the devil I know.)

The truth is that cancer is part of the body. My cancer cells were made by me. It is not my fault that it happened; it was an accident of cellular division. But it came from within me. And that’s  hard to wrap my head around. Why would my body try to destroy itself? What the fuck did I ever do to you, body? (Wait, don’t answer that.)

The cancer-as-enemy idea correlates quite neatly, for me, to that of demonic possession. The idea of "The devil made me do it." Casting blame for wrongness, whether for a crime or a socially stigmatized thought or obsession, onto an outside actor can be attractive and comforting.

I’ll use an example from my own life – intrusive and obsessive thoughts. All of us have these thoughts one time or another – something horrible that pops into our heads for a second, seemingly out of nowhere. Many people are able to dismiss these for what they are – odd blips of the brain. But others, like me, can become obsessed with them. Why did I think of that? Does it mean that I am evil/violent/a criminal? This thinking becomes circular – fears that you are evil tend to lead to strange “thought experiements” to test your evilness, and those thoughts reinforce the idea that you are evil. The thought pattern grows out of control....kind of like cancer cells.

It’s attractive, for someone trapped in this circular thinking, to be able to blame something else, like the devil, for implanting those bad thoughts. 

In the same vein, it is common for people to dismiss actual criminals as simply evil, inhuman, rather than admit that within all of us dwells the potential for carnage and destruction, and that the wrong circumstances will unleash it. (see Milgram, et al.)

Carnage and destruction are possible not just externally, but internally. Everyone reading this has a cancer cell of their own making floating around right now. More likely than not, the immune system will find it and neutralize it.

But sometimes the immune system misses, and you've been exposed to the right environmental toxins, and you have the right gene mutation. And boom. The damaged cell divides and divides, growing its tumory self all up in your breast (or prostate, or kidney, lung, skin, brain, liver...).

What if, instead of fighting cancer, we sent love to it? Imagined healing the damaged cells, instead of annihilating them? They are just broken pieces of ourselves, after all.

The other thing about war is that many innocents die. And enough, please.

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