I am not completely stupid. I know celebrity culture is here to stay. As my children frequently remind me, ‘It is what it is. Deal with it.’
But because I am programmed to imagine a world where things could be otherwise (and for what it is worth), I do have some observations to make about Channel 4’s recent Stand Up to Cancer programme of events, aired on 31 October.
I’ll begin by declaring my interest. As readers of this blog will know, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (the fifth most common cancer now being diagnosed in the UK, and the most common blood cancer) on Valentine’s day, 2006. I am now in my ninth year of remission from the disease. As readers of this blog will also know, based on my experience of treatment for lymphoma, I strongly object to martial language to describe patients’ experience of cancer, specifically the language of ‘battling’ and ‘fighting’ the disease.
This is for three reasons:
1. After a day on a chemotherapy drip you feel the so-called ‘battle’ is being done to you, not that you are choosing to fight in one yourself.
2. The notion of a ‘battle’ places the responsibility of getting better upon the patient. This opens up the possibility that it is the ‘strong’ or ‘deserving’ patients who survive having cancer, and that those who die from it are somehow lacking in moral fibre. This is dangerous. (I sometimes wonder if it is not unlike a bizarre mutation of the Protestant work ethic, itself a mutation of the notion of the idea of ‘deserving’ to be ‘saved’.)
3. The idea of cancer as a ‘battle’ unnecessarily romanticises cancer as a disease when there is nothing romantic about it. Consider the phrase ‘after a short/long battle with cancer’ used in headlines when a (usually famous) person dies from the disease. Even though the ‘battle’ has been lost we persist in reassuring ourselves that the deceased has ‘given it everything’. Like so much that is said about cancer by people who have not had it, it is uttered more to reassure the speaker than those having treatment for the disease.
Now I need to declare my prejudice, as WH Auden encouraged us to.
I am a snob. I am allergic to voting-celebrity, charity-TV, or what I now prefer to call ‘top-down TV’, that is any programme which fetishises the suffering, poverty and grief of ‘the other’ in a bid to manipulate the viewer to feel outrage or pity. Which is a lot of our TV at the moment, if you think about it. From the back stories of cancer-suffering X Factor contestants’ relatives to Red Nose Day to Children in Need, great TV though they are, there is always a voice inside of my head asking to hear the truth.
I am not quite sure when I first became conscious of this (surely unreasonable?) over-sensitivity. But I do have a very clear memory of watching Billy Connolly weeping on a studio sofa during Live Aid, nearly thirty years ago, at the video of the Cars’ ‘Drive’. Now, don’t get me wrong, I cried too. It is still immensely powerful. But part of me wondered: what are we watching here? Are we watching the suffering of actual Ethiopian children who are dying from starvation, or the suffering of a celebrity when confronted with that suffering? What is the construct? I am not being charming and postmodern, I think it is a real issue, because however valuable its cause, and undeniably skilful its execution, the video still achieved the unhappy effect of simultaneously distancing the viewer, ie keeping us safe, and ‘othering’ the subjects of the film, in this case dying children.
My premise is that however well intentioned and however well produced these TV extravaganzas, they are a kind of totalitarian TV, which brooks no argument, where the ‘outcome’ has already been decided, and where the unquestioning support of the viewer is already assumed. Who cannot but be moved at presenters looking straight at the camera saying ‘I miss her’? Or guffaw at Sarah Millican showing us how to ‘check our boobs’ with Dr Christian? We laugh, of course we do, and it might actually save lives! What’s not to like?
While we are changing the metaphor of cancer (look at their military array, chests puffed out, lips pursed with seriousness, arms folded), let’s instead commission a film of Dr Christian asking cancer research scientists which are the cancers we are most likely to find a ‘cure’ for. Or even to just ask: where does the money go? Or let’s get Jamie or Davina to show us what happened when they hassled their MP or local NHS Trust or NICE for more Herceptin or Rituximab. We could do it you know. We could.
Instead of ‘battling’ cancer we could dance with it. Or face paint with it. Or learn to live with it. Or write it down. All of these would involve telling the truth. Which would be a start.