In 1978, writer and activist, Susan Sontag, wrote Illness as Metaphor, a brief but important book that discussed the dangers of attributing larger meaning to sickness and disability. Her thesis, simplified, was that an illness was an illness, not a judgment on character, a commentary on one’s personality, or a statement about society at large. The 1970s were indeed a dangerous time for the chronically ill, a decade when many psychologists attributed cancer diagnoses to “repressed” personalities and recommended psychotherapy as treatment. Although such views about cancer are in the minority today, the discourse surrounding illness has not improved and in many cases has worsened.
You are not a warrior. Nope. Unless you are actually in the military, that is not you. Yet patients, especially women, are told that they must engage in warfare in order to “defeat” their cancer. Fight like a girl! Wear a pink ribbon! (Side note: ribbons representing awareness for medical causes are derived from the yellow ribbon used as a symbol of support for the armed services). Thinking about cancer as a battle poses a danger to the patient’s psyche, encourages quack medical treatments, and enables society to blame the patient for the spread of her own disease. The patient’s best course of action is neither to fight nor to surrender but to listen to one’s doctors and follow their suggested treatment plan. Telling someone that she is both sick and that she will have to fight a war is tremendously frightening and while this fear will not make the cancer worse, it could make life more unpleasant. When cancer becomes terminal, patients fall prey to unethical treatment centers who urge them to “battle to the end,” rather than opting for the comfort of medically-recommended palliative care. Sick patients feel social pressure to show their friends and family how hard they are fighting, wasting emotional labor on theatrical displays of inspiration and reminding everyone to “never give up.” As someone in combat with an enemy, the patient is also expected to inform others of the impending threat. An individual with cancer is not only an ill person but also a vehicle of awareness.
None of this makes dealing with cancer any easier, especially for women. After all, the narrative of cancer as warfare is reinforced by pink ribbon campaigns, advertisements for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America which tend to feature female spokespersons, and myriad stories of once-weak women turned to warriors (why do people love this sexist trope so much?). Suppose a different discourse existed, one where a tumor was simply a tumor, patients were encouraged just to take their medicine as prescribed, and society acknowledged that not all medical outcomes were based on effort. Such a discourse would involve the healthy embracing a degree of uncertainty, which would be frightening to them. But shouldn’t healthy people pick up at least some of the psychological burden from a patient with cancer?
The way society looks at people with other chronic illnesses is even worse. All too often, conditions such as ADHD, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, depression, anxiety disorders, migraines, and fibromyalgia are used by right-wing pundits as evidence of the emasculation of American life. Conservative critic Michael Savage suggested that autism could be cured by telling patients to, “Straighten up [and] act like a man.” Each of these medical conditions has become a metaphor for the feminization of societal space (known to feminists as a step toward equality) and thus people with these conditions run the risk of being deemed weak, dishonest, hysterical, or lazy. It’s time to call the right wing out when they use these metaphors. It’s time to de-politicize common (and uncommon) medical conditions. A woman’s medical condition is not a societal barometer. Let’s drop the metaphors surrounding illness. Life is scary enough as it is.
Written by Lillian F.