I am a social scientist. I make my living entertaining questions about what it means to be human.
I have entered CancerLand with the same kind of curiosity I bring to any new world I encounter. Along the way, I’ve distracted my treatment-addled brain by pondering some of the essential questions about who we are.
Like, are people inherently good?
With the unbelievable outpouring of love and support I got from friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers, I am tempted to say yes.
I know my inclination is based on a few things. My treatment is coming to a close and the memory of the worst parts of it are already starting to recede. I also realize that I am a glass-is-half-full kind of gal. The slights fade for me, and the love rises to the top.
I also know that the full story is much more complex. My adversity invites sympathetic bystanders. My illness is a “blameless” one, invoking greater compassion. I am not a person who has neglected my health and is reaping what I sowed.*
In the internet age, folks share. A lot. But I am not, for example, extricating myself from a domestic violence situation or grieving the suicide of a loved one, both of which would be filled with much more psychological complexity. The unambiguous injustice of what I am facing gives me license to be more open and rally people to my side.
So are people inherently good?
A study reported in Scientific American got me thinking about this question again, reconsidering my optimist’s conclusion. Biologically, we are designed to feel repulsion when we see a sick person. The mere sight triggers an immunological response. It makes sense. We need to preserve our own health and well being.
The findings resonate with the accidental fieldwork I’ve done in the body of a cancer patient: the guarded stares I catch out of my peripheral vision, the quickly masked looks of horror on the faces of people who have known and loved me as they see my unhealthy pallor, others’ constant preoccupation with how I look throughout my treatment.
In my culture, we are urged to visit the sick. It’s called bikur cholim. We are taught that “one who visits the sick takes away 1/60th of his pain.” There are even outlines about how to behave — what is appropriate to talk about and the caution not to stay too long.
Some of the things that make us good people come easily. Others do not. And personal history makes some good deeds easier to do than others.
This suggests that our nature isn’t perfect and that, for a variety of reasons, we often need a nudge toward doing the right thing. Clearly, there are solid survival-related reasons for avoiding sick people. But I suppose what separates us from other animals is that we can rise above instinct toward a better self.
In some ways, it’s okay with me to come to terms with the fact that we are not inherently good. We don’t always instinctively do the right thing. All of us can think back to times where we could have acted more nobly or righteously.
Accepting that as true only makes it more miraculous to have had so many people choose to overcome their fears and be there for me when I needed them.
* I don’t really get into the meritocracy of illness — that is, it becomes irrelevant whether or not somebody’s illness was an expected outcome of earlier behavior or genetics. I’m just saying that these attitudes exist and that it shapes how people respond to you.
In case you have been hiding under a rock, let me alert you to the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It’s actually become a season for marketing purposes, with the pinked up products coming out late in the summer.
The campaigns have come under criticism from health care activists who point out the phenomenon of pinkwashing. By adorning their products in pink ribbons for the Cause, corporations bypass accountability for whether or not their product might actually contribute to the rise in cancer rates, or whether or not they are actually making any contribution to cancer research. Leading the way, Breast Cancer Action started the Think Before You Pink campaign, most notably leading the outcry against KFC’s Pink Buckets.
Aside from the hypocrisy behind much of the marketing, many of us are painfully aware that the body parts we have had disfigured or lost are fun to talk about, commanding disproportionate attention. It can be emotionally difficult to have your disease be the object of titillation through sexy Facebook memes, particularly when the treatment for the disease has left you feeling distinctly less sexy.
My friend Jacqui Kelly satirized this beautifully on my Facebook wall. She posted a picture of the pink ribbon Barbie with the wry caption:
Comes with prosthetic breasts, 2 wigs, chemo cap, eyebrow pencil, vomit bag, and a 5 year supply of tamoxifen…..
The dissonance between the sorority feeling of Pink Ribbon culture and the horror of treatment cannot be overstated. Nor can the uncomfortably disproportionate attention to breast cancer over other diseases that are more common or more deadly. Lung cancer and heart disease kill more women than breast cancer but do not get nearly the same attention.
I’ve tried joking about it here on my blog and on Twitter. The funny thing about my ironic testicular cancer awareness tweet (below) was that a friend who had testicular cancer was so grateful to see some equal time for his cancer, he posted it as his status update on Facebook.
The responses were revealing. Unlike a lot of the thumbs ups for the boobie meme I was poking fun at, this post got more squirmy reactions. (“I’ll never be able to look at an asterisk the same way again…”)
What does this awareness campaign get us? One the one hand, we get titillation. Less often discussed, they might invoke pain for those left behind. One of my Twitter friends lost his mother to cancer and recently felt fed up with “awareness” month. For anybody who has been there or lost somebody they loved, we can tell you, cancer is no party. It’s pain, suffering, and, sometimes, loss and lifelong grief.
So what should awareness mean? Nobody will convince me of a connection between buying pink ribbon potato chips and knowing the symptoms of breast cancer or your personal risk.
In my better world, awareness would mean that you all would know cancer risks and stop eating so much processed food. You would prioritize exercise and think about the chemicals in the products you buy. It would mean that you would know when to get screenings and schedule them in a timely way. You would know the importance of funding research for early detection and more humane and effective treatment. It would mean that instead of buying a pink Snuggie, you would donate that money to help low-income people have access to tests and treatments.
There is a lot to learn about cancer and a lot we still don’t know. Do you know about the risks involved in mammography? Do you know when you are supposed to start screening for colon cancer? Would you know the symptoms of a polyp in your colon or a melanoma on your skin? How does lymphoma or thyroid cancer usually show up? How about the signs of pancreatic cancer or liver cancer?
If we could get people to have that level of awareness, we would have accomplished a lot more than selling a bunch of stuff that people might not even need.
I wanted to commemorate my past year somehow. I thought of writing an entry about before and after, but it was too complex and probably of interest to nobody but me.
Instead I made a slide show of my year of treatment. I thought it was going to be emotionally difficult, seeing myself go from healthy to sick and somewhat back again.
What surprised me was how happy this made me. I had tons of pictures of the friends and family who came to help and support us. There are even a bunch of folks who helped out and are not in this slide show. I had so many pictures of my kids looking like kids. I know there were important parts of the year that got left off camera, but seeing how we managed to stick together, with all of this love as a glue, was healing.
The music is “Here I go again” by Danny Salazar. Right after I was diagnosed and we were in that awful waiting stage, my husband and I discovered his band. He was playing in a local dive and we tried to go every week. This song spoke to us, and we got to dance and sing along to it quite a lot in those early days.
But Pink-tober is getting a bit overplayed. I invite you to jump on the next cancer cause bandwagon. Like breast cancer, it’s lethal. And it’s hot.
Let’s make November Ass Cancer Awareness Month.
Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the United States. In contrast, breast cancer death rates are actually decreasing. Let’s do the American thing and go with a sympathetic underdog.
I think this might sell some yogurt. Or fried chicken. Or whatever.
Okay, so we don’t get to have titillating t-shirts about self-exams. No “feel your boobies.” Unfortunately, colonoscopies are not as “fun” as self-exams. They involve laxatives and scopes. But we can still come up with something catchy.
The ass you save may be your own.
And we can have provocative images of men and women with this cute slogan. This gives the campaign much wider appeal than the sisters-only breast cancer awareness campaign.
An ass is a terrible thing to waste.
(Wait. That one may have been used already.)
There are natural product alliances (toilet paper, Fruit of the Loom) and obvious potential celebrity endorsers (J.Lo, Isaiah Mustafa).
We just need to come up with a symbol à la pink ribbon. I think the whole ribbon thing is in overkill too. Nobody can keep track of purple, yellow, teal, gray.
How about a butterfly?
I see the potential for a real solidarity campaign.
Also known as FREE ADVERTISING!!
Next memo: My ideas for the penile cancer awareness campaign.