Friday 6 December 2019

Of course we don't want to get cancer. But we well might

The Cancer Society's 'I want to get cancer' ads are controversial and troubling, but perhaps that's what's required

Emily Hourican
Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

I've been wondering about the Irish Cancer Society's "I want to get cancer" ads. At first, I confess, the subtlety of 'get' and 'get' passed me by. I didn't get it. Didn't cop on that by 'get' they meant in the sense of "I'm gonna get you sucker . . ." or get as in 'understand'.

That isn't entirely my fault, because the initial teaser ads just had "I want to get cancer" without the little extra explaining bits.

And so, I thought the ad was a very hard-hitting attack on those of us who don't change our lifestyles radically in order to try to avoid getting cancer. Basically - "if you get cancer, it's because you want to get cancer, because you haven't tried hard enough not to get it . . ."

And yes, I thought that was pretty confrontational, but as a cancer survivor (I cannot feel anything but a fraud when I use that term, and I don't much identify with it, but technically I guess that's what I am), the level of confrontation didn't much bother me.

But, then I thought about it from another perspective - not as someone who has had cancer, but as someone who has lost people to it, and it struck me differently. More aggressively. It felt a bit like a swipe at them, with that oblique suggestion that getting cancer carries with it a shadow of complicity.

I thought about how my children might have viewed the ad had my story not turned out to have a happy ending. Or how they might have viewed it while I was going through the worst of treatment, when they saw me burned, vomiting, and unable get out of bed. Kids are inclined to believe too much in their power over the universe. They believe, somewhere incomplete and obscure, that they are responsible for the things that happen to them, good and bad. And so, it's not hard to imagine that they might also believe that the rest of us have way more power over our destinies than we actually do.

I thought about everything I had ever said to them in response to their questions 'why?' and 'how?' - all that stuff about "sometimes these things just happen, it's no one's fault, you just have to deal with it" - and how feeble those explanations might have suddenly seemed in the face of them wondering: "Hang on, did she get cancer because she wanted to?"

For a very long time, cancer, more than any other disease, carried with it this strange whiff of personal failure. The idea that it is somehow self-inflicted; something your body attacks you with as revenge for being somehow unfulfilled, for not expressing your emotions or your creativity. That view held for so long, that cancer was something shameful, to be hidden and denied, a 'lingering illness' as the obituaries euphemistically described it. Something, therefore, that you get because have inflicted it on yourself; something you 'want' in a curious kind of way, or at any rate don't not want enough.

Even worse, the vicious logical conclusion of that way of thinking was the one where those who died of cancer did so because they didn't want to live, didn't fight hard enough, didn't will themselves better.

No one believes that now, because great work has been done showing those notions up for the nonsense they are (particularly Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, given to me by my rigorous brother-in-law while I was sick; a strange but interesting choice). And good riddance to them.

Which is why I would hate to think that the Irish Cancer Society ads could in any way, inadvertently or not, feed the fallacy that anyone could 'want' to get cancer, or that the wanting would have anything to do with the getting. I know now that this is not what the ads are saying - although I wonder if, along with the word-play on 'get', there isn't still the faintest hint of a challenge there?

And even if that is so, that's OK. Because the bottom line here, beyond all the is-it-isn't-it offensive stuff, is that at the current rate of diagnosis, one in two people will get cancer by 2020. Until recently, that figure was one in four, which meant that statistically speaking, I had taken a bullet for my husband and kids. Now, according to the latest stats, two more of them stand to get it. Given that I wouldn't wish cancer on my worst enemy, that thought is unbearable.

And the thing with cancer is that prevention is always going to be better than cure. Trust me, the cure - if you are lucky enough to find one - is hard and horrible. The great thing is not to get it in the first place. The place to stop cancer is before it starts. No expensive smart drug or new immunotherapy will ever be as good as simply not getting it, and the not-getting is, to a huge extent, in our hands. Yes, many of us do all the 'right' things in terms of lifestyle, and get cancer anyway, but taking that as a reason not to try is petulant and childish.

We need to take cancer seriously. Take the statistics seriously. Saying "it won't be me" when the rate is one of us in two, is absurd. It was me, it might easily be me again. Or it might be you.

Of course you don't want to get cancer, no one does. But we all need to work much harder at not getting it.

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