Alanna Mitchell

Award-winning Canadian science journalist.

Malignant Metaphor: Confronting Cancer Myths: A Memoir

The reaction to this book since it came out in the fall of 2015 has surprised me. I’ve had comments from people who have cancer as well as from those whose loved ones have died. They say they gave a big sigh of relief as they read it. It seems to give them permission to shed some of the guilt that cancer carries with it. That’s the best reaction I could have wished for. I think it means that the malignancy of the cancer metaphor is losing its grip. At least for some.

Not only that, but it’s gotten critical praise and it won the Lane Anderson Award for best science book written in Canada in 2015 for an adult audience. Such an honour!!

It began as a piece of research a few years ago to help my beloved brother-in-law, John, when he was diagnosed with untreatable melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. His doctors told him that he had only a 60 per cent chance of being alive five years after they diagnosed him. They had nothing to offer. In fact, they told him nothing he did would make a scrap of difference.

He asked me to be his cancer broker, I agreed.

I ran smack up against a raft of myths our society has created around cancer – how we get it, how much there is, what we can do to forestall it. I realized that we hold three impossible beliefs at the same time: cancer is inevitable, preventable and deserved.

So I set about parsing those beliefs, testing them to see if they’re true. Short story: They’re not. There’s actually less cancer now that there was a few decades ago; it’s more treatable and more survivable; and we know precious little more about how our own actions affect whether or not we get it. In fact, cancer is common, random and unlucky. But that’s not the story we tell about it.

Just as I was figuring all this out, my 21-year-old daughter, Calista, learned she had thyroid cancer. I spun out of control with grief and guilt, certain that I had done something wrong, that I had failed to forestall her disease.

The book is a chronicle of all that. It’s deeply personal. I wrote it in a great, ceaseless torrent while I was on a six-week writing grant from the Lannan Foundation in Marfa, Texas.

I came to believe that we must open a frank conversation about this malignant metaphor we’ve created, shine the light of information on it, hold some of the marketers of cancer breakthroughs to higher standards of truth when they try to prise more money out of our pockets.

I think it’s time to have a new conversation about what cancer really is instead of what we tell ourselves it is.

2 thoughts on “Why I wrote Malignant Metaphor

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