The Smokescreen

I would like to preface this by saying that I really do not intend to write a lot about cancer on this blog. In general, in life, it is something I wish to move on from. But sometimes a survivor’s got to vent. And something that keeps sticking in my mind this week is the harmful and deceptive piece published in AARP which interviewed celebrity cancer survivors Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow.

In which they spat out gems of wisdom along the lines of “Ignore the BRCA2 gene, use diet and exercise and meditation to kill the cancer” or “I brought it on myself….Cancer is a gift….etc.” For example: "Because Etheridge has a mutation of the BRCA2 gene, which predisposes women to breast cancer, her strategy for preventing a recurrence has been to exercise more control in her life and to fix what went wrong. "I'm not a victim," she says. "I take responsibility for it." - as in "It's all good, people with cancer, you can beat it, it's totally your fault and within your power to kill the cancer cells - (oh but we're not going to talk about the fact that I had intensive western medicine on my side as well, that's boring.").

Quite why these two have been allowed to spout gibberish in a medical based magazine is beyond me. Obviously, in this instance surviving cancer has entrenched them deeper into their self-belief that they are somehow wiser than cancer, stronger than cancer, BETTER at kicking cancer’s ass than less lucky individuals by merit of their organic Californian special-ness. No survivor’s guilt for these two, no sir. They have moved on and up. They are in control of cancer. They are exercising and meditating their way further away from the unpleasantness of cancer, they have learned how to self elevate away from the disease.

So who does it harm? ”If they want to believe it let them?”, you might be thinking. "Maybe they are right?", you might also be thinking…“Lots of people who get cancer really aren’t very healthy, they kind of (whisper) deserve it for being smokers/fat/etc…I’m not one of them”, you might silently think. The head in the sand mentality looms large in cultural attitudes to cancer. Good luck finding a women’s magazine that doesn’t tacitly suggest somewhere in its pages that if you eat enough broccoli and blueberries the cancer boogeyman will leave you alone for being such a nutritional goddess.

No one wants to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that cancer is more often than not random and cruel, a virulent disease who’s only known adversary is a punishing and ugly course of chemo and a visit to the radiation lab. Of course lifestyle factors and hereditary genes are a big part of many cancers. But please do not for a second begin to lump them in with ALL cancer. Cancer does not discriminate between young and old, weak or healthy, rich or poor. It has thousands of ways of attacking your body, which of course you must do your utmost to keep as healthy as possible. But the “blame the victim” tribe is a dangerous one.

Before you think that I am completely dismissive of alternative wellness treatments, I will say that during my chemotherapy I had Reiki (provided free by a local charity) as well as aromatherapy and reflexology. Anything I could do to up my energy levels and feel more human I was more than happy to try.

However, I never allowed myself to believe that I was the all-powerful cause and cure of my own disease that Crow and Etheridge are implicitly promoting. I did not manifest an 11x13 inch tumour in the center of my chest. It was not a conspiracy of the universe or lack of kale, it was healthy cells in my healthy, non-smokers twenty-eight year old body that decided to turn malignant. Am I interested in the deeper cause, particularly because my type of cancer (Aggressive Non Hodgkins Lymphoma) has no known cause? Of course. It is natural to want to know “why.”

Was it merely bad luck, or was it perhaps that my Dad was in Vietnam, where fellow Vietnam vets and their children have a spiked rate of cancer and other diseases down to Agent Orange? Was it that my grandmother took an anti-miscarriage drug that has subsequently been shown to have a higher incidence of cancer in mice as many as three generations later? Who knows.

Maybe someday we will. I have an inquiring mind, but it does not change the fact of the matter that cancer is a disease, which in my case was successfully treated with the same drugs that have been beating it (my kind) for more than twenty years, if you are lucky. Does it infuriate me we don’t have a cure yet? Do I want more research and innovations in pharmaceuticals and less focus on superficial moneymaking drugs? Of course. I am not happy with the status quo.

But what makes me just as angry are survivors like Etheridge and Crow being frankly, smug a**holes with their implied claims that superior diet and meditative lifestyles are somehow immunizing them from further contact with cancer. You were lucky, don’t be so quick to climb back on the pedestal of superior, cancer free health ladies. It’s rude and insensitive to others fighting the battle, and I have witnessed it in many ways in my years since treatment.

In fact, I once fell into it myself. I was having a PET scan, which is like the highest tech radioactive scan you can get. Oddly I was having it done because I had a spontaneous blood clot in my leg a few years ago. So I ended up seeing my oncologist as a blood doctor, not a cancer doctor. Life is strange.

At any rate, there was a woman also waiting for her scan with me, which is unusual, it’s normally an isolated experience. She was wearing a headscarf so I gathered she was going through chemotherapy. We had a little chat, and I shared my experience, trying to be sensitive to her situation but also maybe possibly offer a tiny bit of hope – I mean, if I can make it anyone can, I was in pretty dire straits after all.

Just as I was beginning to think we shared a kinship, we were partners in this battle, she let it drop that this was not her first time at the rodeo. No, she had been in remission for a couple of years, and the cancer had come back. It was not looking good.

I felt the floor open up beneath us both, and I stared back down into the abyss that I thought I had left behind. Because with cancer, there is no happy ending sometimes, sometimes it is nothing but an endless war, not a battle, and no one should ever allow themselves to feel smug for making it through the first round. She was as cheerful as anyone could possibly be in describing where she was at, and wished me well.

For the rest of the day and a while after I felt so much guilt, so much sadness. Why her and not me? What made me so special? It is unfathomable to me how anyone could start to preach or claim to be in any kind of control of this disease after coming through it.

We are not all in the same boat, and we need to respect that and never forget it. Maybe it’s not something people who haven’t been through it can truly understand, but it hits me on such a core level whenever it crops up, and it sometimes feels as if the non-cancer population emits a collective shrug. I know the Etheridge and Crow story garnered a decent amount of outrage, because they were being so blatantly ridiculous, but it happens every day in far more subtle ways, the cult of denial.

Every time I get an email claiming sugar is the cause of cancer, or see a Facebook post announcing that oxygen is the answer, chemo is a lie, etc., that of course turns out to be nothing but a smoke and mirrors hoax that none of the people spreading it bothered to look into, I feel a bit defeated by people's seeming determination to remain ignorant.

I don’t wish this crappy disease on anyone, and I get that it is terrifying and no one wants to think it can happen to them. But it happens to one in three of us, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask that everyone starts to care and be more interested in the facts, not the mythic hearsay. It’s easier to put our heads in the sand, I completely get it. But please know that every time you do, it is a step backwards for us all.


  1. Excellent post, Steff. I think the problem often is that people don't want to see the horrible truth about the treatments used to treat cancer, etc, and prefer to buy into the stories spun by healthy looking celebs instead. It's much easier to convince yourself that you would be like them if it happened to you. Hope you continue to experience good health and raising awareness of the reality of cancer. Kate x

    1. Thank you for reading Kate! :-) I understand the desire, completely, to think we are in control, and I do think trying to live a healthy life is important. But to connect it to being in any way a realistic means of avoiding or treating cancer just boils my blood! ;-)x