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.
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