Turning My Stomach

I know what you’re thinking: you see a picture of Joan Lunden in a post and think this is another celeb-with-cancer bashing piece. Not exactly. I’m certainly no fan of Lunden or any of these celebs sharing their “inspirational stories”–and in my opinion Lunden IS one of the worst of them. But this picture is only partly her fault. Let me explain.

You see, this is an ad for People magazine. That issue of the magazine, that cover, is old. Yet the ad containing the cover picture, with the little items around the magazine cover, yeah, it’s new. I tore it out of my most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly. I’ve been seeing the ad in a few other magazines this weekend–I was, um, sifting through a huge backlog of magazines to clear some out. Yes, I still read actual magazines, sometimes for recipes (glossy, colorful pictures motivate me better). And man, I’ve been behind in reading-‘n’-recipe-reviewing, so this weekend was all about reducing my backlog!

OK defensive digression over.

Are these items holy relics or something?
Are these items holy relics or something?

So in short, I saw this ad a few times and as I reached the last magazine in my pile I yanked out this page and took a good long look at it. As I did so, I understood why it turned my stomach more than the usual celebs-with-cancer stuff I see. Have you seen this ad? Have you really looked at it, thought about it? (I kinda hope you have seen this ad, since I am no picture/computer wiz–and this scanned copy of the ad is not very clear and probably too small, but if you click it, it should get bigger.)

The ad, which IS for People, chose this older issue to tug at heartstrings, to sell magazines (yes everyone seems to use certain kinds of cancer patients to sell product). People magazine is touting their attention to the details as one reason they are so good at telling stories about people worth being in their magazine (that last part about worth is questionable, but I’m going with it for now).

So these featured details are items I guess Lunden mentioned in her interview–honestly, this was a while ago and I probably just skimmed it, and I don’t remember much of it. So there are pictures with dramatic captions:

“The sport that kept her active”

“The razor that took her hair”

“The bandana that covered her head”

And others. The reverence in the tone of these little captions, like these items are holy relics or something, just strikes me so odd. It made me think of the inspiration porn the late Stella Young spoke of.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out the fetishizing of breast cancer–and I don’t mean just of women’s bodies and breasts. I mean the fetishizing of actual patients and by extension, these objects belonging to Lunden. Most of the dictionary definitions of fetish–before it gets to the sexual connotation, describe a fetish as objects regarded with reverence or extravagant trust and superstition. Yeah, the reverence part is what I sensed in those captions used by People magazine. Like these items were her weapons in her battle (because they love the metaphor), and if you fetishize some items, they can help you too.

Now, this post has been picking mostly on People magazine. Like I said in the first paragraph, I know a graphic of Lunden will pop up with this post, and readers will think it is another gripe-about-celebs post–and I tried to deny that, to explain I would be taking the magazine to task instead. But, I do acknowledge here at the end that yes, Lunden is certainly culpable. She has built a little industry around her cancer journey to be sure–I refuse to join her Alive website, ugh! Her cancer shtick isn’t particularly original–it is just the same old stuff I saw when I was first diagnosed, but now packaged with a fake-y morning show journalist’s pizzazz. She’s just sticking to the pre-approved cancer patient script. I don’t find her inspiring, and definitely not deserving of reverence.

But this is more than just Lunden and People magazine–it is this whole effed up cancer culture. This ad and yes, Lunden too, this whole thing is just a weird example of what I find so stomach churning in cancer culture. Like the old adage about only the positive stories getting to the podium, but magnified. I’ve griped about this before (here); how I hate this storification of cancer, this need to not only use battle language, but to mythologize the cancer story too, like some old knight going off to battle a dragon. Ugh, my cancer experience was just so NOT a fairy tale.

Ah, but here I am, a giant hypocrite. I’m sticking to my pre-approved cancer script too, because I ain’t saying anything new here–these are old gripes for me. It was just the presentation in this ad, the way those objects were laid out and captioned like religious relics that just exasperated me more than usual.

And as usual I offer no solutions. And I don’t believe in giving advice. But I will offer comfort. If you find these usual presentations of the cancer story–the sanitized, pretty-in-pink, I’m a warrior who kicked cancer’s ass stuff–as stomach turning as I find it, well, to expand on Alice Roosevelt’s saying, your place is here next to me.

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Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

12 thoughts on “Turning My Stomach”

  1. My cancer experience was not a fairy tale either. Nobody’s is. I believe some patients get pressured to act a certain way because people don’t want to see the human side of cancer. Many people do not welcome vulnerability. Perhaps there’s a ‘shame’ factor associated with this. The pre-approved cancer patient script is real. When I find some sanity I will write about an experience I had last Oct. related to the Today Show here in NYC. And just recently, I was asked by a big corporation to be their ‘warrior in pink’ at one of their events. Obviously they want to use my pain to sell their products. I told them no and explained why in an email – short and sweet. They never wrote me back although they sounded so excited at the beginning. This is all harmful and it is one of the reasons why we have the culture we have in cancerland. Organizations can help change this by leading with facts but that doesn’t sell. Words matter. How we present our experience with cancer matters too, but unfortunately the stories are only half told (not sure all are real either). I am not sure I can offer any solutions either. All we can do is continue to repeat ourselves until someone finally listens.

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    1. Hmm, fairy tale is probably not the right way to say it–staying on script I guess is better. It’s just so cliche now–get cancer, fight bravely, persevere, all that crap. From where I stand Lunden has really not deviated from that cliche. She admits she was frightened, angry, whatever, but triumphed in the end. I guess that is why I think she has not really brought anything new to the table. And I can’t help but wonder if part of her motivation to stick to this story is because it is one the audience wants.
      Will people ever listens? Who knows, and even if they do they won’t listen to me. But this People ad really gave me the willies, all those reverent captions on the items–just….no! Anyway, thanks!

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  2. Yes, I’m with you. I have bladder cancer (in remission). No one fetishizes us because A. we deserve it (it’s a smokers’ cancer) and B. who on Earth would talk about a bladder (or lack thereof) in public. Breasts are sexy. Bladders aren’t.

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    1. Smoking seems to be tagged as a cause in every cancer and other illness–not that I’m saying smoking is a good idea–it just gets called out a lot. For sure, breast cancer patients get an obscene amount of the glory (ugh!). But I do wonder about the fetishizing–not in the sexy sense. Lance Armstrong set a big example with the whole livestrong thing–and certainly embracing the battle metaphors. Pink ribbon crap can be blamed for so much nonsense in CancerLand–but that campaign shoulders some of the responsibility of requiring ALL cancer patients to be strong and brave and be inspirational to others. And of course, as Young’s video of her TED talk shows–these requirements of being role models, well, it is not restricted to cancer patients, or even people with any illness. And it is very weird and dehumanizing. I think I’ve spoken of this in older posts–but I don’t believe in having heroes of any sort–I don’t like to look to a sports star or rock star or whatever and say that person in my hero. They are human, subject to human faults. I don’t wish to dehumanize them. Hope this makes sense!! Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. I loved this piece, mainly for the writing. It made me laugh, as well as think. Awesome! Also, the comment section is pretty cool too.

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    1. Wow, thank you very much! My posts do tend to be just for that–to make one laugh and think. I don’t have solutions–maybe someone will think one up, ha ha! And yes, I love comments on blog, I love interactions which is why I try hard to answer as many as possible! Thanks.

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  4. Oh, gag me. I hate the whole celebrity-poster-child-for-cancer thing. It’s always dangerous. No matter how the celebrity actually feels about their life, as soon as the mass media gets a hold of them, reality is going to get perverted. And then their lives and message become a marketing tool. Spare me. Makes me glad I’m not famous. xo, Kathi

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    1. I do think some celebrities embrace it tho’, especially Lunden. She seems to be turning her cancer experience into an industry and it is kind of gross. And yeah, while I’m glad I’m not a celeb, I still felt judged by people I knew, felt I had to keep up an image. Grr. Glad those days are over. xo

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