In the Nineteenth Century and the five thousand years preceding it, there were countless deaths attributed to the C-word. People from all walks of life, all ages, genders, races and religions succumbed to this mysterious illness. Just the mention of the C-word sent chills down the spine with a growing sense of desperation and defeat. Sly businessmen sprang out of the woodwork, pitching miracle cures in little bottles and raking in money hand over fist because sometimes the patient did get better and the oil in those bottles appeared to work. More often than not, the sick would get sicker in spite of the slick sales pitch, and a lack of access to proper medical care made the situation worse. Bodies, once healthy, wasted away with the onset of the disease. In the latter stages of the illness, doctors often would not even treat the disease, so sure they were that the patient had no hope.
Gradually, people began to talk about the C-word differently, and a truly miraculous thing happened: people stopped dying from it. The reasons were simple. For one thing, medical science was catching up to the reality of a wider variety of illnesses. Early detection became possible, allowing for a proper diagnosis and quick treatment. More importantly, it became very clear that the C-word was not a real thing. That word, of course, was “consumption,” a blanket term for pulmonary tuberculosis and any similar diseases that the populace lacked the ability to distinguish between or treat, but that was not truly ever an actual disease of its own. In reality, the term “consumption” only referred to the symptomatic withering of the body, which seemed to be consumed by the illness itself. Once the name of this condition was replaced with more specific terms and better differentiated by medical professionals, it rapidly became known as a treatable bacterial infection rather than the feared disease of yore.
Cancer is rapidly becoming the consumption of our day.
Although President Obama has rightfully put cancer research back at the forefront of popular discussion and national priorities in his last State of the Union Address, he has propagated the myth that “Cancer” is an actual thing. There can be no “cure for cancer,” as our President has called for and as so many people have promised or devoted their lives to in the past. There can be no singular cure for the big-C label of Cancer because there is, in truth, no such thing. Much like the consumption of a previous century, cancer has been a term used as an umbrella for a wide range of conditions that have been little understood and poorly diagnosed. Over the past twenty years, it has become increasingly more obvious that the old views on cancer were often wrong, misdirected or simply incomplete. These recent decades have offered major new discoveries and — perhaps more importantly — new distinctions that prove there is no “Cancer,” but rather hundreds of cancers. More to the point, there are hundreds of distinctly different types of cellular mutations that may become cancerous, and each of these should be considered for what they are, discussed as what they are and treated in an appropriate fashion.
Snake oil, like concentrates made from hemp plants or water with an insignificant alkalinity, are part of a successful industry because they utilize the ignorance and indifference inherent in the old narrative. As long as Cancer is embraced in the public consciousness as a single mysterious disease, it remains possible that some people will be inclined to believe in mystical cures or those based in — at best — dubious science. By changing the definitions, however, we expand the discussion in the most productive manner. It becomes very difficult for con artists to sell their alternative treatments if they are forced to promote them in narrower, real world terms. How these treatments work, from delivery mechanism to dosing to what chemical process the treatment targets, becomes an obligatory aspect of promotion. Changing our narrative on cancer reshapes our understanding of this range of diseases. It will expand our public awareness of what they are and how they can be treated. More importantly, it will better prepare patients for the dialogue on treatment options while enhancing the necessary trust for a successful caregiver relationship.
And it will help our society edge closer toward actual cures.
Yes, language is that powerful. While we cannot talk all cancers out of existence, talking about them in the right way and treating them differently from one another, will have the affect of creating more targeted responses and reducing the culture of anxiety that currently exists around that broad umbrella.
We are most anxious about that which we understand the least, which is why we fear it the most. Human nature is such that we are all inclined to be afraid of the dark, afraid of the stranger, afraid of the “other” of which we know little or nothing. As our higher selves, we fight xenophobia and fear-based impulses of all kinds. But the true candle in our darkness has always been knowledge. And knowledge is formed (and informed) by language. Language is the foundation on which all stories are built, and it is time to take this horrible, terrifying story and revisit it in the unflinching glow of modern science.
The narrative on Cancer is changing already, though most people have not yet realized it. But the acceptance of this new narrative will need time to spread before it can truly take hold in the popular psyche. By doing your part, we can spread it together. By taking an active, conscious role in redefining how we all speak about Cancer, we can end the stigma so many patients feel, reduce or eliminate layers of irrational fear, even speed more targeted research where it is most needed.
The process begins with realizing that what we once thought of as Cancer was wrong. It continues with realizing that our ideas of treatment are largely outdated. Hollywood queues up Cancer as the go-to terminal illness in garishly cartoon fashion whenever it needs to illicit pity, fear, compassion or morbid uncertainty for a character, and in doing so reinforces an overly simplistic view of Cancer as a unified disease from which there is no escape. As long as we buy into that presentation, there is no change. But advances in science have proven that when we stop looking at the old model and instead approach Cancer as a myriad of distinct conditions, often vastly different from one another, there is more success not only in symptomatic treatment but also in the curative process. Embracing this new narrative, before the narrative itself was even fully understood, has led to new types of drugs like targeted gene therapies and immunotherapies and more tolerable, more effective options for chemotherapy. Understanding this new narrative will help patients and their caregivers, their relatives and friends, to embrace the treatment process in a more empowered fashion.
With that empowerment comes an additional gift: the potential for greater personal success. Knowledge being power, the patient will be stronger and better equipped, leading to a more confident and determined perspective on treatment. This point of view will help keep a patient focused on a positive outcome, which in itself may be one of the singularly most important components of a successful treatment.
Sometimes progress is as simple as altering the way we look at something. Redefining “Cancer” for the 21st Century is an important step that we all can take together. Changing this narrative can — and will — save lives.
I would love to get your thoughts on this in the comments section below. Please take the time to share your feelings or impressions about how changing the language we use might be helpful in spreading awareness, coping with treatment or any other aspect of living with cancer. And if you disagree, I’d love to hear that, too. Thank you for the few minutes it will take to offer your responses!