Cancer as Metaphor

By Fields, Rick | Whole Earth, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Cancer as Metaphor


Fields, Rick, Whole Earth


In Illness As Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues--persuasively I think--against the whole notion. She points out that illness becomes metaphorical because its cause is unknown. In the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was considered a disease of sensitive, poetic, soul-sick people who were sent to sanitariums like the one in Mann's The Magic Mountain, or to healing climates like Arizona or New Mexico. TB seemed to represent the spirit of the age, until it was discovered that the cause of TB was a bacterium.

Today cancer is used as a metaphor in much the same way. The cause of cancer, in all its variety, remains unknown, and so cancer invites metaphor. So, just as there was thought to be a tubercular personality--pale, wan, poetic--there is talk of a "cancer personality"--uptight, negative, passive. One who does not express anger, or grief, or love, or who has "lifestyle" problems, such as being isolated, not eating the right foods, drinking too much, not exercising enough, not being creative enough. Not "following your bliss." Or not finding the early hidden trauma that is the key.

I get angry when well-meaning friends or acquaintances or healers or therapists suggest I investigate what I did to cause my cancer. Not that I totally ignore such theories. But I always smell (or imagine I do) a whiff of smug self-satisfaction in such suggestions, helpful though they usually are meant to be. Adding this to dealing daily with cancer seems to me unfair. It is blaming the victim. Plus, I don't buy it. I've known too many nasty greedy SOBs who enjoy, it seems, a cancer-free life, while some of the kindest, most courageous people I've ever met are stricken.

And consider the children. Gabe Catalfo, who fought leukemia from the age of seven until his death at fifteen, was a sweet, generous, open-spirited soul. Now how can having a "cancer personality" or a bad lifestyle be the cause of a seven-year-old's disease? And many children even younger are afflicted.

Nevertheless, I suggest that the pathology of cancer is a good candidate for a metaphor for our time, which I am not alone as seeing as characterized by unchecked growth and greed. Call it gigantism, post-industrial capitalism, or totalitarianism (the Soviet Union left a terribly abused environment). Whatever name we pin on it, it is driven by a boundless thirst. More is better. Bigger is better. So, unchecked, out-of-control growth for the Earth creates a good metaphorical fit between cancer and the values of the society we live in. …

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