Deborah Orr: There are just as many clichés about having cancer as there are taboos

If you go public with cancer, everyone might want to tell you how 'brave' you are


Am I the only stony-hearted cynic who doesn't think that it was "brave" of Kylie Minogue to go public when she was diagnosed with breast cancer? Nowadays the only possible reason why one would not go public with one's breast cancer is fear of the possibility that everyone might start wanting to tell you how "brave" you are, when in fact you're sick with panic, misery and fear.

Am I the only stony-hearted cynic who doesn't think that it was "brave" of Kylie Minogue to go public when she was diagnosed with breast cancer? Nowadays the only possible reason why one would not go public with one's breast cancer is fear of the possibility that everyone might start wanting to tell you how "brave" you are, when in fact you're sick with panic, misery and fear.

A further fear might be that fools led by Madonna might start telling you that you'll pull through because you're a "strong woman". What nonsense. Breast cancer's millions of victims didn't die because they were not "strong". They died because they did not get the right treatment at the right time. Suggesting that "strong women" beat cancer is not far from that vile canard which decrees that the disease is caused by "psychic unhappiness turned inwards".

Anyway, poor old Kylie had no choice about sharing her awful experience with the world. If she hadn't, the papers would be full of spiteful pieces about diva behaviour, breakdowns, broken romances, miscarriages, abortions, plastic surgery, letting-down-the-fans-who-put-her-where-she is, too-big-for-her-hot-pants, and never-believed-that-girl-next-door-routine toxic nonsense.

This very thing happened only the other week to Sharon Osbourne and her daughter Aimee when they backed out of The Vagina Monologues without straight away saying why. Snipes and speculation, even as they were seeking urgent medical attention, forced them to be specific about the problem. A woman may now be able to talk through her vagina. But woe betide her if she tries to silence her bosoms.

One of the strange anomalies of modern life is that celebrity women are now comfortable about letting the rest of us know when their breasts are suffering in ways that have no notion of celebrity. But when they elect to have surgery in order to enhance their appearance, they're often happy enough to deny everything and let all of those stewing over their own bodily inadequacies carry on believing that it's all down to iron self-will and drinking plenty of water.

Ah, you may say, all this may be true. But Kylie has still "raised awareness of breast cancer". I wonder if she has. Marvellous women have been working for decades to raise awareness of breast cancer, supporting other women in their efforts to feel they are still women when they have a cloth bag filled with rice in their bra, posing naked with their mastectomy scars and founding one or another of the hundreds of breast cancer charities that compete for our attention.

Is it possible for breast cancer awareness to be raised any further, when we all personally know women who have had scares, had surgery, had treatment, and sometimes died? A couple of generations ago, no one mentioned cancer. Partly this was because back then it was a death sentence. It is fantastic that this miserable taboo is gone, and that people are now so much more aware of the dangers. But Ms Minogue is surely one of the beneficiaries of this change, not one of its brokers.

What is needed now is for similar attention to be paid to the rather more tricky strains, which some time ago took over from breast cancer as the top cancer killers in Britain - lung cancer and large-bowel cancer. Admitting to having the first marks you out as a self-destructive crypto-chav. Admitting to the second ... well, let's just say that we've not yet seen Elle Macpherson smiling in her "Fashion targets large-bowel cancer" T-shirt.

Too white and middle class to understand urban alienation

Oops. Earlier in the week I suggested that a cultural seam that glamorises nihilistic criminal behaviour was a pernicious influence. According to a large number of correspondents, I was heartily wrong. Such posturing is the result of urban alienation, not its cause. I am "too white" and "too middle class" to understand the complex in which culture and reality may or may not interact.

Thanks heavens that there are so very many white, middle-class people who are more sympathetic. Hoodies off to Jade Jagger, pictured, who designed such items of jewellery as a pistol pendant to cement her street credibility with Garrards and express her feelings of exclusion from the "straight" treadmill. Hoodies off, indeed, to this illustrious jeweller for so touchingly giving voice to the voiceless by re-creating their iconic symbols in 24-carat gold.

Hoodies off to Reebok, the company that became the victim last week of an Advertising Standards Authority that was too white and too middle class to understand it. The ASA ruled that using the rapper 50 Cent, with the sound of guns firing and the sight of the screen turning blood-red, in order to sell sportswear was irresponsible. They failed to see that the advert was merely a powerful expression of the company's hopelessness and lack of opportunity.

Hoodies off, too, to the advertising agency, the media buyers and the media owners - all of them, I'm sure, from the ghetto - who helped to bring the advert to the members of the public, who were sadly so white and middle class that they complained about it (these people being the most likely to have had their son shot dead as a consequence of all that expression of alienation).

Last summer a popular song poked fun at the media's tendency to blame rappers for crime, with the lyric "Guns don't kill people, rappers do". But seductive as the song was, the fact is that the attitude expressed by the members of Goldie Lookin' Chain is just as narrow as the ones they were spoofing. Neither guns nor rappers kill people. Those squeezing the trigger do. They are as likely as not pathetic, lost teenagers firing at each other.

They don't have influence over very much at all. But plenty of powerful forces do have influence over them. How about a new refrain for this summer: street criminals don't glamorise rap culture; multinationals and those willing to be exploited by them do.

Or is that just how it looks to a white, middle-class woman who hasn't lived in the "ghetto" (ie an inner-city council estate) for a whole 12 years? Or am I still Debby from the block?

¿ What fun it was this week to observe the Queen as she plodded though those meaningless thickets of New Labour speak. But they're not the only ones who talk in socialese now.

Last week I was called to account by my son's swimming teacher. First she asked if English was his second language. Then she asked if his teachers had suggested he might have special needs. Finally she wondered if a doctor had mentioned attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I stared as her aghast. Finally I said: "You do know he's three?"

"Ah," she replied. "That explains it. Big boy, isn't he?"

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