Saturday, 5 January 2019

Dangers of a single story

One of my favourite TEDx talks is by the Novelist Chimamanda Adichie, who beautifully shared how, if we only hear a single story about another person, community or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding (i). One example she gives is of Africa being seen as only about poverty, HIV/AIDS and wild animals. Even when we know there are many more perspectives, many of us welcome a single story rather than embrace and explore complex, muddy, grey areas.

We see this 'single story' occurring in many aspects of our lives and not least in the world of cancer. Since Richard Nixon declared ‘war on cancer’ in 1971 we have seen the language around cancer become consumed by the language of war; 'she is bravely battling her cancer’, ‘he lost his fight with cancer’, ‘one day we will beat cancer' and ’she conquered cancer’. The implications are that in order to ‘win’ the battle with cancer we have to fight hard enough, smart enough and for long enough. This is a nasty implication that suggests if we die, we didn’t fight enough - not that our scientific understanding, genetics or even finances and access to treatments can play a role.

Here's a quote from Senator Lister Hill, who said of cancer at the time: "We are at war with an insidious , relentless foe. (We) rightly demand clear decisive action - not endless committee meetings, interminable reviews and tird justifications of the status quo." And an advert from campaigners in 1969 said: "Why don't we try to conquer cancer by America's 200th birthday? What a holiday that would be!'

This military language is in our media, charities and everyday life - and indeed may help some, but it can also hide different ways of seeing this disease.

I am not sure I am a warrior! Like many I do what I think is right to heal - and make mistakes along the way. So much of it is unknowable. Will this treatment work? How fast is the cancer growing? What else should I do? I don’t see any of this as being brave. In contrast someone who risks their life for another is brave.

The military language and its expectations to fight can be more than hard to live with. It doesn’t feel like a fight to me. I live with it - and at times it seems to get the upper hand and I’m filled with fear - but at other times I am thriving on it. As I’ve noted before cancer has become a ‘guide’, alongside me, prodding me this way and that as I learn to prod it back. The people I am meeting, the learning about healing, my improved diet, the increased immediacy of life and more, are all part of that thriving.

I've mentioned before that I am grateful for the insights in Sophie Sabbage's inspiring book, ‘The Cancer Whisperer’, with the wonderful subtitle 'Finding Courage, Direction and the Unlikely Gifts of Cancer’.  She wrote about how she had cancer, but cancer did not have her; how cancer brings us an invitation to look within ourselves and decide who we are and how we wish to live. So rather than seeing cancer as the enemy we can see it as a teacher or a guide. 

Cancer has come out of my own cells; to fight it feels like going to war with myself. Cancer is in us - and rather than a war, it is a chance to work at putting things right. Sophie Sabbage asks: ‘What if cancer is the body’s last attempt to save its own life? What if its purpose is not to extinguish us but to heal?’ If this is so, and it feels intuitively right for me, then cancer can be a guide to our healing.

Kate Granger writing in The Guardian said in 2014 (ii): "As a cancer patient who will die in the relatively near future, I believe rather that instead of reaching for the traditional battle language, [life] is about living as well as possible, coping, acceptance, gentle positivity, setting short-term, achievable goals, and drawing on support from those closest to you".

So it seems to me, and indeed a growing number of others, that medicine, media and public should be careful in choosing their language, particularly around cancer. It is great to see that both Marie Curie and MacMillan are beginning to question this language, but we all need to go further. There are many ways of talking about cancer. As Adichie says when we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story, 'we regain a kind of paradise’.

To finish here is a short draft film looking at narrative around cancer; my cousin and I had a fun evening throwing it together. How can we make it better? Update 20/04/20: just seen this research confirming battle metaphors are not so helpful:


(i) See:

(ii) See:

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