The Concept of Cancer An Overview

Although the biological, epidemiological, and genetic origins and indicators of cancer are vitally important—they are the frontiers on which the disease is being battled—cancer is more than the sum of its physical parts. It is also a socially imagined disease that is collectively thought about, embellished, and reacted to in ways that mesh with a people's established social and cultural norms. In some African countries, for example, perceptions of cancer as a stealthy, insidious disease mesh with notions of malice and witchcraft (Bezwoda et al., p. 123; El-Ghazali, p. 101). In parts of Italy cancer poses the threat of social as well as physical disruption and death, a viewpoint that meshes with the importance Italians place on defining themselves and their worth in relationship to others (Gordon). In the United States, by contrast, "having" cancer sometimes is considered a personal failing and responsibility, a notion that clearly draws on deeply ingrained concepts of individuality and the individual's role in determining his or her destiny (Good et al.).

Ideas and perceptions about cancer are not, however, unchanging or static. Cancer was widely viewed in pre-nineteenth-century art and literature as a distinctly romantic disease. Susan Sontag has linked this view to evidence that for a long time cancer was confused with tuberculosis, a disease historically infused with a romantic mythology (Sontag). Gradually, however, after tuberculosis was identified in 1882 as being bacterial in origin, cancer developed a separate and far less romantic identity, characterized in Sontag's view by a highly deleterious and stigmatizing image that persists to this day.

In the United States the situation can be made worse by the punitive and often militaristic paradigm of the disease (Sontag, pp. 65—67; Payer). People with cancer are treated aggressively, sometimes without much concern for their quality of life, perhaps partly as a result of the way in which cancer treatment is framed as a "war" that should be "waged" with "weapons" such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Such language is widespread and public: Cancer research institutions have worked it into their mission statements, and high-profile cancer "survivors" such as Lance Armstrong use it to encourage others.

So detrimental do some scholars consider this meta-phoric expression of cancer that they recommend a shift away from the use of metaphor to understand and define cancer and other diseases (such as AIDS). Writes Sontag: "The most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking" (p. 3). Metaphors can hurt, Sontag suggests; they are a rhetorical means by which diseases can acquire meanings that inflict additional pain and suffering on people with diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

Sontag's argument has to be considered in light of two other observations. First, cancer patients are rarely passive victims of the collective lore or mythology surrounding their disease. One cancer patient, in an advice column published online by the American Cancer Society, rejected the notion of cancer as a purely individual, unshakable disease: "I find myself more comfortable telling people, 'I was diagnosed with cancer' instead of saying, 'I have cancer.' On some deep level, I don't want to 'own' this illness." The writer goes on to offer the following advice to other cancer patients: "Choose language that suits you when you share your news. And keep in mind that there is no one 'right' way of doing this" (Murray).

Individually or as members of self-help organizations, cancer patients can and do actively oppose the aspects of their disease and its conception or management that they consider negative and unfair.

Second, metaphors do not only hurt or damage; they also may help patients cope with cancer. Studies show, for example, that cancer patients frequently draw on religion, nature, art, the military, and many other sources of imagery to help them visualize their diseases, treatments, and recoveries (Skelton; Tompkins and Lawley). Psychologists have reported considerable success working with the many different kinds of metaphors that cancer patients can adopt throughout the course of their disease (Tompkins and Lawley). Ethnographic evidence indicates that even oncologists and other specialists use metaphors to help them understand and confront cancer and "routinize" new technologies and treatments (Koenig; Simon; Skelton et al.).

"In the healing process the most important part of communication takes place at the metaphoric level," states the medical anthropologist Margaret Lock in Capra's Uncommon Wisdom (1989, p. 289). "Therefore, you have to have shared metaphors" (chapter 19). This may be especially true in the case of cancer because of the seriousness of the disease and the onus on patients and their caregivers to utilize the full range of resources—medical, social, and metaphoric—available to them in their joint effort against cancer.

10 Ways To Fight Off Cancer

10 Ways To Fight Off Cancer

Learning About 10 Ways Fight Off Cancer Can Have Amazing Benefits For Your Life The Best Tips On How To Keep This Killer At Bay Discovering that you or a loved one has cancer can be utterly terrifying. All the same, once you comprehend the causes of cancer and learn how to reverse those causes, you or your loved one may have more than a fighting chance of beating out cancer.

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