Friday, June 15, 2012

The Cancer Joke

I might get some flack for this, but, I have to be honest: I really hate the current campaign for breast cancer awareness. (Across the globe, readers label me as an insensitive ass and click off of my page.) The trend, at least here in America, is in two phrases: “I Love Boobies” and “Save the Ta-Tas.” You see these slogans on bumper stickers and T-shirts and rubber bracelets. Bad ideas, if you ask me.
The first problem is that there is nothing funny about cancer.
Now, let me put up a hand here to stop those who would say: “People need to laugh -- especially people who have cancer. What’s wrong with a sense of humor when it comes to a horrible disease?”  
Well, there’s nothing wrong with laughing when you have cancer. In fact, let me be up-front about this: I am a cancer survivor. Laughing was great medicine when I was fighting my fight, but there is no joke in cancer, itself -- trust me. If I wanted to laugh, it would have been at Bugs Bunny cartoons, not at cancer. It’s hard to see the humor in an insidious intruder who’s trying to rot your body from the inside.

Medicine has its office, it does its share and does it well;
but without hope back of it, its forces are crippled
and only the physician's verdict
can create that hope when the facts refuse to create it.
Mark Twain - Letter to Dr. W. W. Baldwin, May 15, 1904

The other problem is that these two slogans reflect what, to me, is a sickening trend in modern society --  the trend to navigate right past a person and into her cells (or, in this case, into her body parts).  We look for answers in microscopic places -- and that is important, for medicine -- but we are talking about saving lives, not just breasts. We’re talking about people, not body parts, exclusively. It’s a bad idea to navigate away from the person and, in this case, are we not sort of objectifying women… for a good cause? (What’s the new, cheeky slogan for prostate cancer awareness going to be? Not quite as cute, eh?)
The last problem is that awareness without understanding is pretty useless. I’ve seen countless teenaged boys wearing “I Love Boobies” shirts. Are these guys more likely to donate their busboy tips to cancer research? Are they campaigning for awareness or are they just trying to be funny? You tell me.
There is a time to be grim. There is a time to cry. It scares me that the collective outward face of American society seems to represent less and less what is going on inside the collective heart. Over the years, I have noticed a trend in movies having no emotional center (mostly in comedies) and, now, I see this happening in public discourse.
It’s cancer. What I wanted when I was fighting the bastard was sincerity, not irreverent and plucky humor. (Notice I didn’t say “what you want when you are fighting…” I realize I don’t represent everyone, but I think my time in the ring gives me a right to speak up about this.)
A friend of mine works in advertising. He once told me about a campaign he worked on for a medication related to chemotherapy. They tested a TV spot on target audiences of women who were survivors. One ad was informational. Another ad was emotional and positive -- recovery-oriented. But these were not the most popular. One other commercial was overwhelmingly preferred by the women: an ad that depicted a woman sitting in a chair with a blue background. She sat up straight and strong. As she sat, a word faded into the upper right corner of the screen: “HOPE.” That was it. That was the most popular commercial.
Let's think of the cancer-fighters, not ourselves. If you were in that position, would you want the energy of the people around your country to focus on "Save the Ta-Tas" or on one word: HOPE? We need to realize that irreverence, while a cripplingly cool thing to many, isn't always the best medicine.


  1. I'm with you. The thing about the "save the ta-tas" stickers that bugs me is that it leaves out everything about the person with cancer BUT her boobs. How about saving the woman, not just her chest?

    1. I should add I haven't seen the "I love boobies" stickers around here but they have the same problem.

    2. Exactly, 'nora. Like I said: it's a kind of objectification for a good cause. Just really weird, to me. I'm surprised women haven't spoken up about this, really.

  2. Another problem with campaigns that focus solely on "hope" and irreverence is that they don't prepare society for the existential questions that creep in when it becomes evident that someone is unlikely to survive. It's arguable that that's not the job of a fundraising campaign, and that positive thinking is at least marginally beneficial, but our chirpy, can-do, American attitude (which I admit I often share) doesn't deal well with death--to such an extent that I've known clergy whose inability to see any kind of death other than "American death" meant they were inept at comforting the dying and their loved ones. Americans are weirdly surprised by death, as if it were invented in a lab in the '30s.

  3. "Americans are weirdly surprised by death" -- something, I suppose, Jeff, started happening when we moved from the farms and/or stopped hunting for food. We're shielded from it until it happens, unlike the children on the farms who watched their fathers chop the heads off of chickens...

  4. So true. It is crucial that the ppl in charge of the media campaigns do what your friend had the foresight to do...test the campaigns FIRST WITH SURVIVORS.