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A DREAD DISEASE: CANCER IN MODERN AMERICAN CULTURE / James T. Patterson WHEN THE JOHN JACOB ASTORS OFFERED to give the Womans Hospital of New York a cancer pavUion in 1884, they received a cool reception from the hospital board. Some of the trustees feared that cancer was contagious. Others did not want to associate the hospital with such a sickness. "Cancer may not be contagious," one board member is supposed to have said, "but the name is." Irritated and impatient, the Astors decided to finance the building of a new and separate institution for women with cancer. It opened in 1887—only a century ago—as the New York Cancer Hospital, the first such institution in the United States. Popular fears of cancer were even more intense early in this century, as evidenced in the language of an impassioned speech by senator Matthew Neely of West Virginia. In May 1928 he arose on the floor of the Senate to demand unsuccessfuUy that the federal government set aside funding for cancer research. "I propose," he said, "to speak of a monster that is more insatiable than the guiUotine. . . .It has preyed and still preys upon every nation; it has fed and feasted and fattened. . .on the flesh and blood and brains and bones of men and women and chUdren in every land. The signs and sobs and shrieks that it has exhorted from perishing humanity would, if they were tangible things, make a mountain. . . .The name of this loathsome, deadly, and insatiate monster is 'cancer.'" No one, however, better described the complex and often irrational emotions aroused by cancer than George CrUe, Jr., a Cleveland surgeon who grew angry in the 1950s at the way that fear of the disease crippled the sensitivity of friends and relatives of victims. He told a story from his clinical experience involving a seventy-five-yearold woman who suddenly could not speak. She was taken to the hospital, where her famUy anxiously awaited the findings from a battery of tests. When the results came in, Crile assembled the famUy and told them the news. It was far worse than cancer, which he might have been able to treat. "There is nothing that can be done," he explained. "Your mother has suffered a stroke from a broken blood vessel; the brain is irreparably damaged. There is no operation or treatment that can help. 268 · The Missouri Review The oldest daughter leaned forward, tense, and with a quaver in her voice, asked, "did you find cancer?" "There was no cancer," I replied. "Thank God!" the famUy exclaimed. The plethora of irrational reactions such as these reveals a central fact about cancer over the past 100 years: to Americans it has been the dread disease of our century. Official optimism notwithstanding, people have persisted in regarding the "Big C," as cancer patient John Wayne caUed it, with special awe and horror. "Cancerphobia," the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine observed in 1975, "has expanded into a demonism in which the evU spirit is ever present, but furtively viewed and spoken of obliquely. American cancerphobia, in brief, is a disease as serious to society as cancer is to the individual—and moraUy more serious." Reflecting such fears, the singer Joe Jackson added in 1982, Everything/Everything gives you cancer Everything/Everything gives you cancer There's no cure/There's no answer Everything gives you cancer. Popular dread of the disease has manifested itself in a wide variety of ways over the past century. One has been a fearful reticence that has at times amounted to a conspiracy of sUence. When President Grover Cleveland was diagnosed as having cancer of the jaw in the summer of 1893, the country was coping anxiously with a depression, and he determined to keep his condition secret. Taking a train to New York City, he boarded a private yacht under cover of darkness and sUpped off, surgeons in attendance, on a voyage toward Cape Cod. While at sea the doctors took out two of Cleveland's teeth and most of his upper left jaw. When the President landed at Buzzard's Bay five days later, he looked haggard and drawn, but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 168-178
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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