Cancer Culture Chronicles – guest post

I have been reading a lot about the recent book “The Emperor of Maladies: a Biography of Cancer.”  Then I ran across this new breast cancer blog The Cancer Culture Chronicles.  I like the take Anna Rachnel, the blogger, develops around the book.  She is also an exceptional writer.

Is Cancer The New Normal ?

I’m on a lovely vacation this week and have been catching up on all of my reading, sun worshipping (yes,yes..with SPF70) and partying like it’s 1985. Well what’s a girl to do when she’s on a little break from treatment as she ponders the next step ? Drink a lot of mojitos and spend a lot of time not actually making a decision about what to do next. But that’s the subject of another post soon to come. So let’s get back to this one.

I was reading an excellent book review entitled “Cancer World” by Steven Shapin in The New Yorker of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A very comprehensive and well-written review and I highly recommend you read it. After you have read this post, obviously. But it was Shapin’s last paragraph that really struck me and got my old brain ticking over. He writes:

“….”Cancer,……is my new normal”. A world in which cancer is normalized as a manageable chronic condition would be a wonderful thing, but a risk-factor world in which we all think of ourselves as precancerous would not. It might decrease the incidence of some forms of malignancy while hugely increasing the numbers of healthy people under medical treatment. It would be a strange victory in which the price to be paid for checking the spread of cancer through the body is its uncontrolled spread through the culture.”

Well dear readers, I don’t know about you, but it already feels like this has happened in the world of breast cancer. So many times I hear breast cancer being talked of as though it’s a chronic disease (even though the dirty little secret is that it isn’t) and the pervasive culture that exists around breast cancer is one that seems to promote normalization with the unintended consequence of desensitizing the masses to the seriousness of the disease. The hope for a cure or prevention entirely is shrouded by the vagaries of yet more “awareness” campaigns and more incremental drugs whose success is judged on how much time they buy, not eradication.

And certainly in breast cancer parlance I hear a lot of talk about the “new normal” and the importance of finding your “new normal”. You can find plenty of information on this topic by simply running an Internet search. Now quite frankly, most of the websites that I found covering this particular topic are of the type that make me feel like I’m sitting in a darkened room on a floor-ful of sequined cushions listening to a New Age therapist with flowing grey hair named Dandelion making ohm-like soothing noises whilst simultaneously cleansing my aura and negative cancerous energy with her toolkit of polished rocks masquerading as healing crystals.

Apparently, according to an example of a Dandelionesque website……

“The search for what is your “new” normal is the culmination of your breast cancer experience. It can define your identity and the path you take on your journey to recovery. It becomes a chance for you to make some choices and take charge of how your life goes while you’re in the recovery process.”

Pardon me, but this almost sounds like something I’d want to buy tickets to. And invite my friend Deidra who’s always looking for new positive life-affirming experiences.

But then Dandelion’s tone takes on a slightly more ominous tone. Ah yes, the metastatic breast cancer “survivor”. Not much to be said for these poor unfortunates except this:

“However, if you are a survivor living with metastatic breast cancer, “new” normal has a whole other meaning. It’s about adjusting to living with cancer every day, managing your ongoing treatment and maintaining your quality of life. And, unfortunately, a “new” normal in this case isn’t always as positive as it is for a survivor who has completed treatment.”

Quite right Dandelion, metastatic breast cancer does suck, (this is exactly what Dandelion said but I said it much more succinctly), but please just remind me again, what is it that we have survived ? And should we really be even trying to apply the term “normal” to the ordeal of living with metastatic cancer, Dandelion ? Because let’s face it, there’s nothing about it that even resembles a little bit about what I remember as being normal. But hey, if it makes everyone else feel better then go right ahead.

After trying valiantly to convince herself that the experience of living and coping with metastatic breast cancer can be magically transformed into normalcy, Dandelion starts feeling a major downer coming on. And so she reaches for the uppers. In this case her drug of choice is the intertwining of the “new normal” and “survivor identity” concepts.

After snorting her feel-good cocktail of cancer cliche’, Dandelion leaves us with this uplifting thought:

“Defining your “new” normal and your survivor identity are synonymous. They both can open up a world of opportunities if you embrace it.”

Really Dandelion ? A world of opportunities ? Embrace it ? Let me just think on that a little more as I embark on yet another round of questionable chemotherapy, contemplate being bald and sick for the rest of my life, and am left wondering what happened to my world of opportunities after breast cancer rudely barged into my life.

But seriously Dandelion. Let me just say this. There is nothing new or normal about having cancer. And we better start embracing this notion very soon, or I fear the result as predicted by Shapin’s book review. That cancer just becomes an acceptable part of our culture. And that’s not my idea of normal.

~ The Cancer Culture Chronicles


About Dennis Pyritz

Dennis W. Pyritz, RN, BA, BSN, has been a cancer nurse since 1987 and a cancer and bone marrow transplant survivor since 2004. In December 2001 he was diagnosed with t-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL), a rare aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Dennis was treated with the then new monoclonal antibody, alemtuzumab (Campath) as this disease has a median survival of 7.5 months. He achieved a 26 month remission but relapsed in February 2004. He was retreated with Campath and went into a second remission. In August 2004 he underwent an allogeneic peripheral blood stem cell transplant with his brother, Mark, as donor. Dennis has remained in remission since - a near miracle. Throughout his career as cancer nurse and patient, Dennis has had the opportunity to speal to both lay and professional groups. Dennis has spoken on cancer topics and survival issues across the country as well as in the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria, Portugal, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Trinidad, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Cyrpus, Israel, and India.


Cancer Culture Chronicles – guest post — 4 Comments

  1. Well said, Anna. There is NOTHING “normal” about my life now. Every inch of it is colored by cancer, dealing with cancer, the side effects of cancer, the eventual demise of my cancer-ridden body. Thanks for pointing this out and keeping us all honest.


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