Monday, January 4, 2016

Why are we at 'war' with cancer and disability?

By Louise Kinross

I heard a fascinating interview with science writer Alanna Mitchell on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright a few weeks ago.

She and Michael note that cancer is seen by society as simultaneously “inevitable, preventable and deserved,”which of course it can’t be, and which leads us to blame people who have cancer.

This reminded me of our religious, psychological and public-health history of blaming mothers for their children’s disabilities.

In fact, when Alanna shares her reaction to learning her 21-year-old daughter has cancer, it’s eerily similar to the one we hear mothers recount when given the news that their child has a disability.

“I was absolutely convinced that I had somehow done something wrong…I went over every moment of her childhood. What had I done, what had I failed to do...I went back to the day she was conceived, to gestation…It was so much better than it being random.”

Alanna notes that rather than acknowledge the unpredictability of cancer, “the disease has to mean something bigger than it is. It's not just a cell that's gone rogue...We write a narrative about it.”

That typically involves dropping the person, metaphorically, into battle. “…with enough pluck and positivity, you can vanquish the Goliath, and even if you don’t win, you are expected to go down fighting,” Michael notes.

Doesn’t this mirror the common storyline we read in mainstream media about a person “overcoming” their disability?

How does fighting fit in with healing?

Doesn't the war metaphor strike you as simplistic, ridiculous and often harmful to a person living with an illness or disability?


There are so many war metaphors in health care in general. 'Front-line' staff, 'battles' with cancer. Here is a great piece in the Atlantic that talks about it:

At times like these, I like to defer what my dad (who is in treatment for his second round of cancer - SEE? I just did a 'boxing' metaphor there)...he says: 'it is what it is.' This is in sharp contrast to the language embedded in war. As the Atlantic article says - why do we mix up the language of healing with the language of war?

ps: this essay is a great reference too:

Great topic!

I've chatted with Jennifer Johannesen about this subject! I hate war analogies when it comes to disability or disease. It's especially egregious when someone is said to have 'lost their battle with cancer' as if somehow, they weren't strategic enough to win. Ugh.

When our child was dxed with cancer, I felt we had entered a war zone. It was attack with the chemo arsenals, support with all one could and life focus turned to the cancer. But in the case of his cancer, there was the chance of eradicating it and going back to the old track. Really, not quite, as we found out later, as the "cure" also often has long term side effects that can result in a child, a person with a disability.

A comrade in arms with a child also so dxed at the same time as mine, had a daughter with severe disabilities who needed constant care. She often spoke of the differences and similarities of the two journeys. Her daughter is now in a nursing home of sorts; her son married with children after going to college. Yet at the time of "war", she thought she'd lose him. Not so much the daughter during her young years as her issues were chronic and considered part of what she would have for the rest of her life. With the cancer, the hope was always that they would beat it, and in their case they did. There was little hope that their daughter would "beat" her disabilities, and less that she would be having an independent life. That was not in the picture for her, as it was a given that she would need a caretaker for the rest of her life. He would not likely, and could and is caretaking himself.

At the time my son was undergoing treatment, I'd have gladly traded his independence for getting rid of the cancer had such a trade off been on the table. It was pure terror of loss of life, with the many warnings of disabilities that may ensue welcome to take instead.