Classy Cancer

Screenshot 2017-07-20 09.11.39

There’s a lot going around about how “classy” [sic] President Obama’s tweet about Senator McCain’s cancer diagnosis is. With a heavy heart, I dissent. As much as I love Obama, and although I trust that he speaks in good faith, I find this tweet hurtful and triggering. It traffics in the mythology that “tough” people are less susceptible to cancer and that having attitude is enough to beat it. (So what happens when cancer *does* know “what it’s up against,” and which cases are those?)

President Obama’s statement perpetuates unhelpful habits of mind that insult cancer patients and survivors every day, as when people said to me, when I was diagnosed at age 41, “It’s a rite of passage, like menopause!” Or, as I waited for the results of my biopsy, knowing that 4 of 7 in my family of origin, including my father, had been treated for breast cancer, “I’m sure you’re fine!” (I wasn’t.  And now we are up to 6 out of 7 having been treated for breast cancer. Breast cancer is what my family of origin does best, and we have a good showing with colon, brain, bone, lung, and liver too.)

Cancer is not sentient; it cannot know (or not know) what it is “up against.”  It is a virulent disease, without consciousness. A patient’s attitude and toughness, if they play a role at all, are much less important than other factors, including ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE. So for Obama to invoke this heroic mythology, however well intentioned, is careless.  And, given what the citizenry is confronted with on the very same day regarding health care access, unseemly.

Senator McCain may well appreciate such sentiments, and if so, that may well be helpful to him.  But I am not alone in feeling re-injured when cancer is presented as a video game with good guys facing off against bad—almost a cause for celebration of the battle.

Hearing constantly about battles, with unrealistic predictions of success, and feeling pressure to think my fight against a life-threatening illness will ensure my survival, just makes me tired.  For me, experience cancer is cause for humility, not chutzpah.  And guess what?  I am still here anyway, heroism or not.

—Rosie Untied

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