I was the one in three.
You know, from the cancer awareness adverts, “one in three people develops cancer in their lifetime.” I was the one in my three.
At seven years old, a tumour the size of an orange had made itself at home inside the warmth and comfort of my chest and was eventually outed as a non-hodgkins lymphoma. From the moment that diagnosis is made, you’ve got to have a strategy. Everybody forms a strategy, it’s the one thing that is going to help them get through the hell to come. From what I can remember, our family strategy was to match the endless amounts of drugs I was receiving with equal amounts of boundless positivity and normality. Having to have lots of time away from school? No problem, I enrolled in the hospital school and spent hours there. Losing all of my hair through chemo? No bother, I had a a huge selection of wonderful hats to wear. Being a child with cancer? No issue, just carry on as a normal child would. Despite the fact that everyone was feeling desolate on the inside, that was our strategy, that’s how we played it.
The dictionary defines anthropomorphism as the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object. Recently, I’ve spotted a few comments scattered across social media concerning the negative effects that might arise as a result of anthropomorphising cancer and I felt the need to comment. The reasons for taking exception to this process are varied; anthropomorphising is childish and patronising, it portrays those who die as not strong enough to have ‘fought’ cancer, it puts unnecessary pressure on sufferers… the list continues. However, I find these criticisms difficult to swallow because, as much as they can be understood and considered as true, we’ve got to remember that we’re talking about something incredibly frightening here.
For me, it makes absolute sense that cancer is frequently anthropomorphised. To do so makes it a tangible being, it means that cancer can exist metaphorically outside of the body in which it resides; it can be ‘othered’. This is something which is beneficial throughout the entire cancer journey because it is a state of mind that can remain stable and unchanging against the roller-coaster of physical and mental symptoms caused by months or years of cancer treatment. Designating cancer as an ‘enemy’, for example, provides a much needed point of emphasis and focus that is easily to visualise and hold on to. I’m sure my family and I did something similar to get us through those horrendous few years of hospital stays, blood transfusions, life threatening drugs, and countless operations. In fact, I anthropomorphised my appendix back in November when it decided it wanted out and I even anthropomorphised my tonsils just this morning on Twitter.
Most of us aren’t doctors, we don’t know the specificities of what’s occurring inside our complicated bodies when something like cancer comes along so we try to humanise it in some way, to make it understandable. Anthropomorphism allows us to do this.
I’ll be the first to preach that some of the social constructions surrounding cancer can be extremely problematic (the continued gendering and sexualisation of women’s/men’s cancers raises a lot of political questions, for example) but I really think that anthropomorphism is the wrong battle to fight. I can honestly say that, after hearing the phrase “lost their battle to cancer”, I have never thought of that person as weak. Why would anybody ever think that?! It doesn’t belittle their battle in any way. We all know how utterly horrendous cancer is, it has got enough gravity of its own that everybody knows what sufferers had to face, regardless of whether they came out the other side or not. If people find comfort in designating cancer as a “fight” or a “monster” or a “burden”, then let them do that.
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