Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hard Cell


Cellular biology by Pants AKA detail from Anon3

Last year my friend Wendy got cancer and died. It came, as it often does, in two stages. It was quick and it meant business. First she had a kidney removed but then cancer appeared in her stomach and she was gone in a few months. She came to visit me just after the kidney operation and made me promise not to go all 'pink ribbon' on her - EVER! It was a promise I found easy to keep. The Barbieisation of women's cancers is something which I find abhorrent and will humour only under extreme duress.

Even more distasteful is the medieval alchemy and ritualism that has become intertwined with conventional medical responses to women's cancers and slips into legitimacy under the umbrella of 'complementary medicine'. One of my best friends died of breast cancer some years ago. I had witnessed her go through the humiliating spectacle of coffee enemas and ozone boxes with no success whatever and, like the narrator in Helen Garner's The Spare Room I had managed to dissuade her from handing over thousands of pounds to 'a man who had a lot of success with the laying on of hands'. I said, 'are you really going to pay all that money to some plonker to feel up your tits? I could probably go round the pub right now and bring back half a dozen guys who would do that for nothing.' Yvonne felt that she ought to be doing something on her own behalf. It was just unfortunate that all the somethings that one can do to 'fight' cancer involve peculiar practices with food, vapours or weirdos.

Today in one's beloved Saturday Guardian Hadley Freeman discusses the equally peculiar 'fairness' equation by which cancers and their victims are judged by society at large. The trigger for this is Martina Navratilova's shocked response to her breast cancer diagnosis on the grounds that 'she had done everything right'. Freeman suggests that the food and fitness industries that have grown up around the idea that cancer is 'preventable' is largely responsible for this attitude. Consumers take the view that their superfood diet and gym membership somehow guarantee them immunity. In the same way that non-smokers who get lung cancer are invariably outraged, everyone who eats berries for breakfast now apparently expects impeccable behaviour from their cells in return.

The third logic-defying factor that accompanies cancer wherever it goes is the belief that cancer can be defeated with positivism. Freeman cites the recent book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Smile or Die. The scientist-turned-writer was diagnosed with breast cancer and was so horrified by the sheer idiocy of some of this thinking that she decided to study it in detail. I haven't read the book but I have heard Ehrenreich interviewed a number of times. In a lecture from ForaTV last year, she talked about her failure to make much of a dent on the entrenched belief that there are 'cancer fighting cells' who will obey the call to arms on command. As a cellular biologist, she has tried to explain that the immune system's role is to fight intruders not the body's own cells and that it is only effective against cancers that are caused by viruses. The reaction has been a universal dumbfoundedness and a dismissive, 'oh well, I guess it doesn't work for you huh.'

In an extract from Smile or Die that appeared in The Australian Weekend Magazine earlier this year, Ehrenreich admits that even she had fallen for the immunity myth up to a point, i.e. she believed that her fitness and good diet would stop her from getting ill. The Pascal's Wager approach seems sensible until you actually get cancer at which point you've lost the bet and need to get a new strategy. Ehrenreich argues that the imperative to positive thinking then becomes a tyranny that throws up barriers to normal, healthy feelings of anger and can prevent terminal sufferers from making the necessary emotional preparations for a good death. Some people die from cancer feeling they haven't tried hard enough to will themselves better. Yvonne did. Wendy didn't.

Why has this dragon-slayer mentality grown up around cancer? Ehrenreich suggests that the medical profession does nothing to combat the mythology because it has made so little progress in refining treatments. She also suggests that the most likely causes of the increasing incidences of cancer are environmental and not behavioural. Most dangerous carcinogens are a result of industrialisation and the highest rates of cancer increase are in the most heavily industrialised nations. As no one can do anything about the advance of technology, we content ourselves with fairy tales and toys, buoyed by the enthusiasm of Oprah Winfrey. If you have a fad to sell, Oprah will have ten please. You can't fight Barbie and Oprah.

I hope Martina Navratilova gets better and I also hope she thinks about the huge numbers of women in the US who can't afford a mammogram much less cancer treatment and directs some of her fighting spirit in their direction. It would also be nice if Oprah could switch her efforts from peddling fantasy to pressing for improvements to actual health services. Relax Barbie, I think you've done enough already.