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Alanna Mitchell, author of 'Malignant Metaphor.' Photo by Chloe Ellingson


'What if we talked about cancer as a dance instead of a war?'

By Alanna Mitchell

Alanna Mitchell is a United Church member and an award-winning science journalist known for her writings on climate change. Her new book Malignant Metaphor, which began as a feature in the November 2013 Observer, examines cancer’s hold on the collective imagination. She recently talked to Kevin Spurgaitis.

On the inspiration for her new book: My brother-in-law, Rev. John Patterson, a United Church minister, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma several years ago. He had no options available to him for traditional medical treatment, and so he launched himself into the world of alternative medicines. He asked me to research all of these new treatments for him, so I just got immersed in the world of cancer. And I got caught up in trying to understand what cancer means to us as a society. What is its cultural significance? Why is cancer our ultimate fear?

The article I wrote [on this topic] for The Observer got so much reaction that I thought, maybe there’s a book here.

On her daughter’s diagnosis: A year after I’d started researching, my own daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She was 21 at the time. I had this complete collapse of the spirit, because I had thought that I understood cancer. I thought I had parsed the cultural meaning of it. When my daughter was diagnosed, I lost all perspective on it. I went into mourning. It was a disproportionate response because the kind of cancer she had was one they believe they can cure.

On how society views cancer: We think that cancer is inevitable and preventable and deserved. And those three concepts can’t exist together, and yet they do. On some of the fundraising websites, cancer is actually called “the ultimate terrorist.” If someone dies, it’s because our society has failed. We have not raised enough money; we have not put enough medical attention to it. The people who have cancer are cast as having done something horribly wrong. I came to think of cancer as a billboard for one’s most secret sins. And I thought to myself, why is that? Why do we have that kind of attitude toward it?

On the unknown causes of cancer: We don’t know how most cancers happen. We’re not mainly responsible for the fact that they happen; most of them are probably random. The exceptions are cancers caused by tobacco. And we have a very few that we can link to genetics. The majority are absolutely inexplicable.

On writing a new metaphor: What if we talked about cancer as a dance instead of a war? Because if cancer is a war, then the people who die are always losers. I can’t accept that. I think maybe they’re just unlucky, and maybe we haven’t got sophisticated enough medicine to treat those people yet. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t want to live or they somehow failed personally. I just think that’s such an inhumane way to look at it. I wish that as a society we could develop more sensitive and sensible and accurate ways of talking about this. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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