Medicine and Myth

Malignant Metaphor: Confronting Cancer Myths by Alanna Mitchell. ECW Press, 2015. 9781770412682. 208pp.

Alanna Mitchell’s brother-in-law was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. His extended family rallied around him and Mitchell, because of her background as a science writer, was put in charge of investigating his treatment options to determine whether they were helpful, did more harm than good, or were pure fantasy. In the process she found that people think about cancer in really odd ways.

People are afraid of cancer in ways that have little to do with the reality of the disease. They think it’s inescapable and happening more and more, but when rates are adjusted for a larger population and longer lifespans the rate of cancer is staying about the same and may even be dropping in the US and other western countries. Cancer is much more treatable than it used to be, and more people are surviving it. The general public thinks cancer is preventable, caused by lifestyle choices, diet, or maybe even one’s mood and outlook on life. Sometimes this idea drives people to try to live healthier lives, but other times it can be cruel: people blame those who get cancer or think that they somehow deserve it. Mitchell found that only a few things clearly cause cancer, like smoking, radiation, asbestos, benzene, and HPV. The majority of cancers are caused by some random cell mutation — we don’t yet understand the how or the why.

Mitchell writes clearly and compassionately about the history of these frightening and contradictory ideas and how they affect the ways we respond to the disease and the people who have it. She looks at it as a metaphor for how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to the natural world. And she explores how the war metaphor (battling cancer, winning against cancer) can be counter-productive.

Then her daughter is diagnosed with a completely treatable cancer and, even though Mitchell had read mountains of research dispelling the myths, she immediately panics and begins blaming herself. She spends the last portion of the book examining the emotional impact of cancer. It can feel safer to blame ourselves than to admit that the process is usually random and completely out of our control.

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