When we are told to “fight a battle” with a “positive attitude”
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. . . My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and the most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” – Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag wrote that two diseases have been “spectacularly, and similarly, encumbered by the trappings of metaphor: tuberculosis and cancer.”
In her book, Illness as Metaphor, written in in 1978, Sontag said that when the etiology of an illness is not understood, and the illness is intractable and capricious, it is mysterious, feared, dreaded, and all sorts of mythology and labels arise from it. As long as a disease is treated as an evil, invincible predator, people will be demoralized by learning they have it. At the time Sontag wrote this book, cancer had become labeled and surrounded by mythology as tuberculosis had in the past.
At the time I read the book medical research had uncovered much of what was mysterious about cancer. We’re learning that cancer is not just one disease calling for one treatment. Better treatment has resulted in some cancer survivors living with it as a chronic, not simply fatal, disease. However, many of the old superstitions and myths remain, and are still impacting patients and the people around them.
I wanted to unravel the mythology in part because the battleground metaphors around cancer were distressing and uncomfortable for me. Every time I read another obituary which said the person died after “a long battle with cancer,” I cringed not because it reminded me that I was diagnosed with a disease that could be fatal, but because I didn’t want the rest of my life defined as a military campaign.
Perhaps it’s unavoidable. I opted out of chemotherapy, so I decided not to “charge that hill,” and I haven’t experienced the worst side effects from some of the medicines that developed from chemical warfare agents. I would think it’s entirely possible that when a person makes a decision to be poisoned in order to poison the cancer, that it literally is a decision to go to battle, it probably takes that sort of a toll on the body, and maybe a person would want that struggle recognized. My aversion to the metaphor may be tied up in my own unwillingness to fight the battle that way. And, if I have a recurrence, my decision will be different, and at that time I’ll have some experience to back up what I’m talking about. I think that people who have gone through chemotherapy have a right to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about.
But, I needed to read the book at the time that I did because I felt pressured on one hand to accept a metaphor of war along with a diagnosis, so I was being told both to “keep a positive attitude” and get in there and go to battle. I intuitively knew there was something wrong with that. Actually, neither of those things made sense to me.
I didn’t believe that my attitude caused my cancer and I didn’t think my attitude could cure it. And I don’t think a person who has cancer should be told they have to spend the rest of their life being a soldier. As I say that, I realize that Patrick Swayze just said that going through chemo was like being in hell, so again, what do I know?
Sontag herself had cancer and wrote this book after her cancer treatment. She wrote that “TB was understood, like insanity, to be a kind of one-sidedness: a failure of will or over-intensity. However much the disease was dreaded, TB always had pathos. Like the mental patient today, the tubercular was considered to be someone quintessentially vulnerable, and full of self-destructive whims. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century physicians addressed themselves to coaxing their tubercular patients back to health. Their prescription was the same as the enlightened one for mental patients today: cheerful surroundings, isolation from stress and family, healthy diet, exercise, rest.”
On the other hand, the understanding of cancer supports quite different notions of treatment. “The treatment is worse than the disease.” The patient’s body is considered to be “under attack” so the only option (treatment) is “counterattack.”
Sontag says the controlling metaphors for cancer are drawn from the language of warfare. Cancer cells don’t multiply, they are “invasive.” Cancer cells “colonize” setting up tiny outposts in distant sites in the body. The body’s defenses must obliterate the tumor. We have radical surgical interventions. Scans are taken of the body’s landscape. Radiation treatment “bombards” us with toxic rays. And, again, chemotherapy is chemical warfare. Treatment aims to kill cells, hopefully without killing the patient.
The “fight against cancer” is a colonial war. Once, American Cancer Society proclaimed that progress has been made “reminiscent of Vietnam optimism prior to the deluge.”
Although my “mission” in reading the book was to find some peace among the military language of this disease, so I focus on that aspect of it, Sontag also addresses other metaphors and labels we have put on cancer, including the idea that it is “nature taking revenge on a wicked technocratic world.”
Although there are environmental causes and connections to cancer, it is as much a cliche to say that cancer is “environmentally” caused as it is to say that it is caused by mismanaged emotions.
Sontag’s book is helpful to deconstruct disease metaphors which she said had become “more virulent, preposterous, and demagogic.”
The book may be too philosophical for some. In fact, in the later chapters, Sontag analyzes the use of disease imagery in political and other rhetoric, using examples from Hobbes, Burke, Nietzsche, Trotsky, and others. But it’s a useful book for those who believe we have enough to put up with having cancer without having to suffer from metaphor.
Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome which had evolved into acute myelogenous leukemia. The MDS likely resulted from chemotherapy and radiation treatment she received three decades earlier for advanced breast cancer and, later, a rare form of uterine cancer.