An Awful Anecdote

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.

File this under things that make you go hmmmm.