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Cancer As Metaphor

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 former 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.

And then there is the growth of humanity, ever multiplying, destroying habitat and causing the extinction of tigers, lions, lynx, antelopes, birds of many species, fish, frogs - even trees, the Earth's lungs. The list is too long.

At a recent conference (one of the first) on cancer and the environment, Dr. Warren Hern, conference organizer, presented a slide show of aerial and satellite views of urban centers. Dr. Hern noted that the slides "bore a striking similarity to images of cancerous tissue (particularly melanoma) invading the healthy surrounding tissue." In his talk, he asked the question, "Are Humans a Cancer on the Earth?" This is a skillful use of metaphor. The question had actually been barred from an earlier conference, the speaker being told, "You cannot talk about that."

When the wheel stops spinning, the finger points to our abuse of the Earth we live on, rarely mentioned either to the cancer patient or in the media. In a new book, Living Downstream (Vintage, 1998), Sandra Steingraber examines the growing effects of pesticides and industrial pollutants, especially on children. Very few of the pesticides that we have invented have been tested. We are waiting for "proof" - as cancers develop in the future, we will consider doing something. As another speaker said in the same conference, it is as though we are conducting a test on our children.

So I suggest that cancer - a disease whose nature is unchecked growth and which destroys its host - is a valid metaphor for our time and situation, rather than a personality type. To change the metaphorical use of cancer to reflect this reality, we must take responsibility. It's a seemingly hopeless task to go against the triumphant tidal wave. But that doesn't let us off the hook upon which we have impaled ourselves. Impossible or not, we must act. As Zen Buddhists chant, "Beings are numberless, I vow to enlighten them. Obstacles are endless, I vow to cut them down. The Dharma gates are limitless. I vow to enter them." And, "The Buddha Way is endless, I vow to follow through."