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.
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.)
OK, I HATE that I noticed this mere minutes after learning of Alan Rickman’s death. I even hated making a small note on Facebook about the language surrounding David Bowie’s death:
I didn’t want to gripe about language so soon after #DavidBowie‘s death. But, damn, one UK headline I saw actually said Bowie “lost” his battle to cancer.
Now, it’s bad enough that the people behind the official Facebook announcement used regrettable language about his “courageous battle”, but at least they did not say lose. I cannot blame the media for using “courageous battle” when it was part of the official announcement. But putting “lose” in there–for fuck’s sake!
As I’ve said MANY times I just don’t even buy into this whole battle structure. But if I were to go with that flow for a moment, and concede that perhaps Bowie was framing the last months of his life with cancer as a battle…who in their right mind would say he lost? He released this album–kind of made it all like his art….seems to me he did his death on his own terms. Hardly a loss!
I mean, Bowie just seemed so alien, such an Artist with a capital “A”, that bringing up the old CancerLand semantics quibble seemed silly, petty, small.
I like to think of myself as a skeptic about damn near everything in life, but I just experienced a bit of synchronicity. No, the Cancer Curmudgeon is not going all woo woo, but this is an interesting little story. Take it how you will.
There has been quite the ripple in CancerLand about the win/lose language, and how it seems to blame those who die of breast cancer. I have a couple of views on the subject that could be considered offensive, and I’m considering a side topic of how the dominant culture controls language and attitudes, so maybe I’ll weigh in about all that later. At any rate, these two blog posts (Nancy’s Point and Regrounding—I hope these writers do not mind my putting links to their blog in my cranky blog) and article from JAMA are providing some interesting food for thought, for me anyway.
So about how cancer patients seem to be blamed for 1) getting cancer (oooo, sore subject for me) and for 2) dying from it. I have indeed seen phrases like “battled heart disease” or “battled Alzheimer’s” but not nearly to the degree I see “battled cancer”. For the most part, phrasing, especially by the media, carefully avoids saying a person lost their battle with, oh, say, a car, for instance.
I live and work at the beach, in Mid-Atlantic states where hurricanes and Nor’easters are more frequent than snow. The alarming increase of snow storms and the massive amounts of snow that has landed here last winter and now this one are just not normal. And I hate it (as I’ve whined on Facebook). This area does not have the money, equipment, and human power to deal with snow. And the snow is always preceded by ice. People love to retire to this area and make fun of us locals, pointing out how a couple of inches cripple the area. It makes me crazy (a rant for another day, not here on a cancer blog—for now, I recommend reading Celia Rivenbark’s “The Southerner Versus Snow”). That’s right, we shut down because we simply are not used to driving in this mess. I see the evidence on the side of the roads whenever I venture out.
I was reading the local news this morning to ascertain the danger of the roads, to strategize how to deal with the day. I came across a news blurb about a fatal car accident. Using the clipped, informative language of news blurbs, the piece explained how a man’s car slid off the road into a slushy area, and spun out of control, ran into an oncoming truck used for snow removal. The man died, the occupants of the snow removal truck were slightly injured. The last sentence got me: the police noted that it was likely that the “excessive” speed of the car was a factor in causing the accident. The journalist writing the article oh so carefully did not imply the accident was the fault of the dead man. He may have been speeding, may have been unsafe in dangerous driving conditions. He may have engaged in behaviors that caused his accident. Therefore he may have caused the accident which led to his own death. But he will not be blamed for it.
I’m not saying this man’s death is not sad and tragic—it is. I’m not saying that accidents don’t happen—especially car accidents—they do. Do we all do dumb things that are unsafe? Yes, and sometimes everything is ok, others, well, we call those occurrences accidents. Because even if we are doing unsafe things, we are not trying cause our own death. So my question is: if I drive recklessly, I can cause my death and it would be an accident, yet, I can do or not do any number of things that might have caused my cancer, it is no accident, and folks can pat themselves on the back and think they are safe from getting cancer, because, you know, they’re so healthy?
I dislike engaging in that “no one says xyz about this disease or thing” argument (for example, “no one sexualizes whatever cancer”, I do not like that line of thinking—a rant for another day). But I cannot help but wonder here if anyone other than the police will ask about this man “was he speeding?”, in those hushed, slightly accusatory tones I heard when folks would quiz me about what I did or didn’t do that may or may not have caused my cancer. Will anyone read the article and think, “hmm he brought it on himself, I’m better than that, that won’t happen to me”?
The issue of blame in cancer is one I’ve ranted about, re-posted, too often (and here it is again: Did You?). I’ll tackle it again. Maybe I wouldn’t have had these thoughts about this man and this accident had the blame issue not reared its ugly head again this week. I don’t know. It just seemed so unfair to read that careful language in a news article today, and know that the next celebrity who dies from cancer will be labeled as losing their battle.
Yes, that is a reference to the musical genius, who fought a battle with a corporation for artistic control and eventually was able to resume being Prince. And yes, I am revisiting the issue of what to call myself, and the struggle with accepted cancer norms, like the battle language.
The other day a blogger on Tumblr wondered, if not fighters or warriors, what exactly are we? And another wondered how to get a loved one to stop using warrior talk in conversation with her, and I have a similar problem, in that my own mother keeps telling me a positive attitude helps one beat cancer (because she refuses to see the scientific proof otherwise). If that were true, I have a friend who should still be alive, instead of me, the realist who should not have made it, apparently.
Well, shit, I wish I knew the answer to these things. There are so many unknowns in Cancerland, that I wish I could embrace the warrior, ass-kicker talk. But I cannot, leaving me with one more unknown, another hassle to navigate. I do not actively choose to not embrace it. I am simply who I am.
It was easier when I was in treatment; I could dodge the warrior and survivor labels by referring to myself as a cancer patient. But now I am out of treatment. I mean, I still need to identify as a patient when I call the cancer center/oncologist’s office. I say my name and that I am a patient of Dr._________, and what I mean by that is, hey, you have a very thick file with my name on it, filled with my info, so let’s cut to the chase so I can get my appointment changed or my question answered.
So WTF do I do and say now? What do I call myself, and how can I interact with the rest of a world that engages in cancer warrior talk?
I know some of how this language came into use is revealed in Gayle Sulik’s “Pink Ribbon Blues”; she covers various contributions to how this language became acceptable—and for once pink ribbon culture is not the only culprit, yellow bracelets have a hand in it, too, if I remember correctly. I’ll have to re-read it, I know. But knowing the how and the why probably won’t help anyone figure out how to change, or at least challenge, this acceptable language of cancer.
I tend to define myself, not just regarding cancer, in negatives; I don’t want this, I don’t want to do that. Hey, I’m a fan of The Ramones and lots of their songs have titles like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, “I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight”. I seem to approach this conversation in cancer the same way: I DON’T WANNA be called fighter or survivor! I DON’T WANNA run a race while wearing pink! I DON’T WANNA participate in pink ribbon culture.
But then I remember, the band was sometimes positive—“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”, “We Want the Airwaves” and “I Wanna Be Sedated”. Well, OK, maybe not positive, but they didn’t just always list stuff they did NOT want—they listed what they wanted as well. There is an online game, and I once found a funny picture, devoted to what The Ramones did or did not want, just because that is what most of their song titles addressed!
So if I’ve got the “don’t wanna” portion covered, what do I want?
Once upon a post, I wrote that I wanted a guide book of sorts for how to do cancer:
I longed for guidance on how to “do cancer”, because I suspected I was doing it wrong…What is offered is “The Idiot’s Guide to Breast Cancer”, when what I needed was “The Asshole’s Guide to Cancer”, with chapters like “You Don’t Have to Wear Heels and a Pink Feather Boa to Infusion to Show Strength” or “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (Treatment Plan)”.
And yes, that final imaginary chapter title is another song reference. I’m going somewhere with the music references.
I’ve said many times, littered in various posts on this blog o’ mine, that not everyone does cancer the same way, nor should that be required. Maybe this blog, with every post I write, I’ve written my own personal not-so-silver-lined playbook on how to do cancer, the one I wanted while in treatment. Clearly, I deal with my cancer and all the surrounding bullshit by looking under rocks, pointing at the ugly worms and bugs underneath, trying to understand the whole truth behind whatever health “news/ads/feel-good-news-filler” is being broadcast in a sanitized manner (“…the hidden side of everything” is part of a tagline of a favorite podcast program of mine). I do not find inspiration and coping mechanisms in the packaged pink message, so I draw it from anywhere and everywhere else.
Granted, because of who I am and my tastes, I tend to draw inspiration from some strange and disparate sources. I think one can tell from most of my blog that I won’t be found listening to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration”, that sickening staple of pink marathons (because having cancer is such a party, NOT).
A few posts ago I mentioned a NPR interview with Elmore Leonard, and his story about filmmaking with Quentin Tarantino that gave me a much needed reminder of my ability to know my own cancer better than random people who deem it fit to tell me (or anyone) how to treat cancer. I think I once repeated the infamous Conan O’Brien quote from a commencement address he gave in the wake of his fracas with Jay Leno: “What Nietzsche should have said is, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you watch a lot of Cartoon Network and drink mid-price Chardonnay at 11 in the morning.’” I have much affinity for O’ Brien; his new TBS show began just as I was about to start treatment. Sleepless, I watched his new show and reveled in his new success, and as I look back, I think I may have irrationally and illogically regarded him as a lucky charm: he prevailed, and then, so did I.
But it isn’t just Prince, The Ramones, Beastie Boys, O’Brien, and Tarantino I’m building my playbook from. I absorb and apply any tidbit that works. There are likely hundreds of bits of inspiration I’ve found that simply would not be considered inspirational, or even recognizable, to most folks, but they work for me, so I use the bits. The biggest, of course, is Dave Grohl, ironically, a “survivor” it there ever was one, given his former band mate’s affinity for heroin and guns. In many interviews with him I’ve heard recently he has talked about the power of not knowing the “right way” of doing something, he has touted the DIY ethic that brought alternative musicians, himself included, to great fame in the early 90s.
It is this DIY ethic I’ve applied to my cancer playbook. It isn’t pretty, this book, it is filled with the heavy and sometimes not-so-cheery-fluffy-pink things that I like. The only smiley face in it is the old Nirvana band logo. The book is not yet finished and maybe never will be. I still don’t know what those of us who object to a label of survivor or warrior should call ourselves, although I’m sticking with Cancer Curmudgeon for myself for now, given the accuracy of the name. I still don’t know how to have conversations with others who rattle on about positive attitudes, or who use battle talk. But I am always searching for those answers.
But I do know this: you can borrow a page from my un-pretty book if you need it. And I know you can make your own playbook. No one has to accept the cancer mainstream language and attitudes if they do not fit. It is difficult, but it can be done. The more of us that reject the sanitized and non-inclusive versions of cancer presented in the mainstream (need I remind everyone that pink ribbon culture ignores those with Stage IV, and any other kind of cancer, hence, non-inclusive), the more our voices of dissent will be heard.
Here’s to a new playbook that replaces that damn pink one.