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Malignant Metaphor: Finding the Hidden Meaning of Cancer

by Alanna Mitchell

Reading Malignant Metaphor, I was reminded of the first times, as a child, I overheard adults speak of cancer. The topic was always addressed in hushed tones, as though a sooty secret were being shared. Turns out I was tuning into an emotion that, according to Alanna Mitchell, looms over this illness in our culture: shame.

Malignant Metaphor: Finding the Hidden Meaning of Cancer Alanna MitchellIn her new book, Mitchell, a journalist and author of the international bestseller Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, uses her keen investigative skills to demystify our most dreaded disease. Mitchell argues that only a handful of things – such as tobacco – have been proven to cause cancer, then proceeds to question the profusion of conflicting prevention tips that circulate in our society. She points out that while the links between lifestyle and cancer are largely unresolved, we continue to view the diagnosis as “a billboard for the sufferer’s secret sins.” Breast cancer in women, for instance, is associated with childlessness or heavy drinking (self-indulgence); men with prostate cancer are teased for having too little sex (self-abnegation). Do too much of this, or too little of that – either way, cancer is seen as a character flaw.

Mitchell does a convincing job sorting fact from fiction, diffusing fear, and challenging the manipulative language of fundraisers who aim for pocketbooks rather than intellectual honesty. Disputing the theoretical link between emotions and cancer, she downplays the potentially self-empowering aspects of the mind, but is right to discredit those who oversimplify matters: attitudes that promote categorical responsibility for cancer, or any disease, unjustly and erroneously fuel self-blame.

Mitchell’s research is rooted in science, while her writing remains grippingly personal. Propelled by cancer diagnoses in her brother-in-law and daughter, the author probes both conventional and alternative treatments in search of answers. Mitchell’s analysis helps to reconfigure the way we think about cancer, easing guilt’s paralytic effects and freeing energy for better endeavours. Mitchell proposes one such potentially beneficial avenue: investigating systemic factors that might contribute to cancer (like industrial pollutants and pesticide residues) would surely prove more productive than stigmatizing those who have it.