Tuesday, September 14, 2010

stand up 2 cancer

I caught a glimpse of the Stand Up 2 Cancer telethon on Friday night. We were going out to dinner so I only watched for a few minutes, but had I had more time I probably would have watched more. As a cancer survivor I obviously feel a strong connection to others struck by the disease, and I value the support.

At the same time, there was something about the entire thing that I did not like. I couldn't put my finger on it, but the next day I found this column in the Washington Post, where writer Hank Steuver comes out kind of harshly against the telethon. He ends his piece like this:

[Cancer in America] is sacrosanct. Getting it, fighting it, coming back from the brink of it and even dying from it -- these are the sacraments of cancer, America's secular religion.

There are lots of comments to the column, and many of those are negative. How dare anyone criticize a good cause?

I liked the piece. It pointed out the use of celebrities to act as stylish preachers, and that hit the mood well, I thought.

But there was something else, too, that annoyed me. I realized I was annoyed the same way I was after having seen Slumdog Millionaire, the immensely popular movie about a boy from a Mumbai slum who wins big on a TV game-show. I think the movie turned an awful reality into a feel-good moment for privileged westerners, and at the same time allowed us, the privileged westerners, to continue doing nothing for kids who grow up with nothing.

The cancer telethon turned an awful reality into something palatable. It repackaged the horrors of cancer into something desirable.

I had five months of chemo. The reality? I hated being bald. I hated painting on my eyebrows in the morning. I hated gaining weight. I hated the smell in the chemo center. Now I have chronic joint pain. And those are the things I am comfortable talking about in public. There are many more side effects of chemo and radiation, during and after treatment, that I don't talk about. Why? I don't want to. It's private.

And that's not even mentioning the fact that cancer kills people. When you are diagnosed you are scared shitless. You deal with the information as well as you can, and you make choices that you believe will take you through the months of treatment that lay ahead.

I did well during treatment, I worked, and I didn't complain. I do well now. I can handle what's going on, and I am not scared. But that shouldn't lead anyone to think it's easy. It's not.

The telethons, and the well meaning, and well groomed, celebrities, and the bald women in chic glasses, all make it look easy and attractive.

I had a student once, a white young man, who said that "If I were Mexican my life would be easier, because then I'd know who I was". To any person of color that statement is laughable. It completely negates the experience of under represented groups. Obviously, in America life is easier for a white person.

"Cancer survivors have a purpose", said the Today Show's Ann Curry in an interview with fellow morning star, and cancer survivor, Good Morning America's Robin Roberts.

That's the image we want to see, and constantly recreate: Cancer creates strength and purpose, and beauty in bald heads. We're almost saying, as misguidedly as my student, that life would be easier if we were cancer survivors.

Cancer is not pretty. The fact that everything on television has to be pretty is doing a disservice to survivors, and patients, and to all of us. I'm not a very religious person, but it seems to me a dose of old-fashioned religion would be helpful. Instead of turning to a 'new religion', we should be grateful for what we have, value our time on earth, and try to do good. We all have a purpose. Cancer does not give that to us.


mackenzie said...

I completely agree with what you have to say about the telethon. I wanted to like it because as you said it is absolutely for an amazing cause, no one can say otherwise. However, there were things about it that really bothered me - much of what you bring up in this post. Thank you for voicing what you felt, even when it seems like the unpopular vote.

Lotta K said...

thanks mackenzie... and if you are who I think you are I hope to see you soon!