Christina Patterson: Cancer is a disease, not a metaphor

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The Independent Online

Another week, and another feisty blonde fashionista triumphs over tragedy. This week's model is Marisa Acocella Marchetto, a slender New York socialite married to a celebrity chef. When she found a lump in her breast, she decided, apparently, to dress for success. Teetering to her chemo in "Casadei faux-croc platforms" and "Pucci rain boots", she resolved to "kick cancer's butt". Two years on, her graphic novel about her experiences is about to be made into a film. Cate Blanchett will play the "fashion fanatic with a fabulous life" in Cancer Vixen, a film whose main message, according to Marchetto, is "Don't be a victim. Be a vixen."

Well, it's always entertaining to see impeccably coiffed control-freaks deal with the devastating revelation that even their own lives are sometimes subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous (impertinent!) fortune, but I think this is one film which might fulfil only half of Horace's edict that art should "delight and instruct". We know, of course, that it's no longer possible to give birth, fall in love or nip out to Waitrose without feeling an uncontrollable urge to splurge the experience on page or screen. But what still sticks in the craw is the growing tendency to present such narcissism writ large as a morality tale, one in which the creator-confessor is cast as the conquering hero.

The word "cancer" rarely appears without the word "fight" or "brave". Kylie Minogue appears to have endured her very public illness with a certain kittenish charm which I suppose you might call courage. Jane Tomlinson, this week named Woman of the Year, has endured hers with a bout of manic, masochistic activity which clearly involved more effort than the donning of high heels. But did they win "the battle"?

It was Susan Sontag, writing 25 years before she herself died of cancer, who warned of the dangers of "illness as metaphor". "Theories that diseases are caused by mental states," she wrote, "and can be cured by willpower are always an index of how much is not understood about the physical terrain of a disease."

If only she were alive now. While each month brings a rash of new theories - cancer is caused by pesticides, or lack of exercise, or too little sex - the metaphysical myth of cancer takes deeper root. In this modern-day redemption tale, the cancer arrives as a message from another, better place. This, it says, is the wages of repression (or inertia or low self-esteem) and you must go on a journey, but fear not, for salvation looms. It is a journey which will probably involve positive thinking and organic carrots. But if you are good, you will triumph and, like Marchetto, you will be able to tell the world, or the media, that you are now "100 per cent cancer-free" and that your "negativity is in remission".

Cancer is not much fun. I know because I've had it. My own "negativity" was actually quite high when I surfed the internet for pictures of mastectomies and wigs. It remained quite high as I dragged myself to work after my daily bout of radiotherapy and popped the first pill that would, according to the leaflet, make me sick, menopausal and fat. Did it work? Well, I'm alive. Will it come back? I've no idea.

If cancer is a metaphor for anything, it's for a world that's often arbitrary and sometimes cruel. Cancer is about rogue cells. You can stamp your feet, you can think of fluffy clouds, you can even declare war, but you can't necessarily "smoke them out". The war on cancer, like the "war on terror", is one you can only quantify when you've lost.

Scandal rocks, er, Sweden?

When Abba won the Eurovision song contest, we toasted their success with R White's lemonade. At long last, we could be proud. Sweden, country of my mother and of our summer holidays, was finally on the map. I splashed out on some lovely posters and, in due course, on Abba: The Soap.

Since then, the moments of excitement generated by this country of high taxes and low speed limits have been a little limited. There was Bjorn Borg's triumph at Wimbledon. There was the global explosion of flat-pack furniture. There were Sven's antics with Ulrika.

And now, with the advent of a new centre-right Swedish government, there's a rash of resignations and scandals. Politician fails to pay licence fee shock horror! Politician pays foreign nanny in cash!

The country must be reeling. Mass counselling all round, I think. But they'll need to raise those taxes.

* The picture was of a huge monster baring its teeth, but on a second glance I had to concede that this was not a Turin-shroud-like image of the Almighty, and that the headline was not "The end of God", but "The end of cod". It was enough, however, to unleash a pleasant, John Lennon-type fantasy about a world in which there was no religion - one in which politicians might be able to focus on weightier matters than a baggage handler's necklace or a teaching assistant's veil.

A world, in fact, in which the leaders of the western world didn't unleash wars in the name of a deity who once had the good sense to burn bushes, but now picks them as his buddies, or one in which the Communities Secretary didn't scupper gay rights because she believed that flagellation is the height of holiness but homosexuality is a sin. God has, it seems, never been so omnipresent - or, indeed, confused.