Too often, we take for granted the value of discourse in our approaches to situations, conditions, and state of affairs that warrant words to describe them. Andrew Graystone attempts to clarify the roots of this underlying problem in our language regarding cancer. According to him, the war rhetoric dominates in our everyday approach to cancer, and this is problematic because as a survivor from three years back, he knows his body well enough to remember his cooperation with cancer cells instead of the popular metaphor of battling against them.
St. Francis of Assisi is said to have treated cancer as a sister illness, which were as much a part of his body’s family as were other body parts. This is a reflection of his religious perspective, in which bodies are not our own, and whatever occurs to it out of surprise is not in our control; living harmoniously with it is the only choice possible.
‘Winning the fight against cancer,’ therefore, is dominantly liberal in the modern view of cancer. In this light, man is highly charged with being ‘master of [his] fate, captain of [his] soul,’ as William Ernest Henley puts it in his poem Invictus. Cancer cells are then treated as foreign objects to the human body, as man did not choose to grow them; it is in his choice, however, to kill these alien cancer cells through his own courage and persistence.
This aversion to submitting to fatalism and to cooperation greatly highlights the power of human agency versus that of the structure in which he is present. Although cancer is treated as a structure in which the ill are subjected to, the liberal perspective treats the ill conversely as highly capable human agents who can change the structure or overcome it.
And what’s problematic with this, as later discussed by Graystone, is its misunderstanding of the human body – as separate mind and body entities. This manifestation of Cartesian dualism creates a border between the controller (mind) and the controlled (body). However, this cannot hold true, as especially in sickness, the body functions as one. There is also a limit to what the mind can voluntarily control, and this includes cancer cells.
If we keep going with the prevalent cancer discourse, we are disempowering patients from cooperating with their own bodies and giving them, instead, a false sense of power over their illness, which may ultimately lead them to frustration and in time, a sense of powerlessness if their bodies fail to ‘cooperate.’
Christine Joy L. Galunan
Christine Joy L. Galunan