You don't need to be an oncologist, I'd have thought, to know there is nothing very cute or cartoonish about cancer. Even if you've never met anyone who has had cancer and you don't have more than a passing knowledge of human biology, there's the fact that cancer causes 14.6 per cent of deaths worldwide (according to the World Health Organisation Report 2012), for starters. It causes a higher proportion of deaths in higher income countries, by the way, so it's not that people with cancer just aren't trying hard enough. Though you'd be forgiven for thinking that if you listen to some of the language that is used around the disease.
The media's portrayal of cancer as "a battle to be fought" was criticised last week by experts in language and end-of-life care at the University of Lancaster. To be fair, people who have had cancer have been criticising that for ages. "We have enough evidence to suggest that battle metaphors are sufficiently negative for enough people that they shouldn't be imposed on anyone," said Professor Elena Semino, the report's author. I wonder if she's been watching much telly recently.
Channel 4's recent programme Stand Up To Cancer, though it cannot be faulted in raising more than £15m for research, was a master class in how to patronise people with the disease. The trailer ("It's payback time!") represented cancer as lots of naughty cartoon potatoes which were shot with blue sludge through a microscope by a handsome scientist in a white lab coat. The fantastic organisation Cancer Research UK advertised its Race for Life with the slogan, "Cancer, we're coming to get you", and invited fun-runners to "help us kick cancer's butt". While wearing pink – of course – because there's nothing like a cutesy little girl colour to really represent months of gruelling chemotherapy and reconstruction surgery, is there? By all means, encourage people to raise money for cancer, but why is all this baby talk supposed to convince them?
The brilliant writer Stella Duffy – who has been having her own cancer annus horribilis, again – said it perfectly in her blog last month after the death of Lynda Bellingham brought on a national outbreak of silly talk. "When we talk about cancer in the language of war, when we anthropomorphize cancer, when we make it other than the self," she wrote, "we damage… those of us with cancer most of all."
This infantilising of cancer cannot be helpful to most of the people who have it. I suspect it is more to do with the people who don't. Are we just desperate to believe that the disease is not random or pointless, that it can be conquered by "standing up to it" with enough conviction, and that it only happens to people who are brave and strong? None of these things is true, and if we really want to support people who have cancer now, we could start by just calling it what it is.Reuse content