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  • Cancer Experience and its Narration:An Accidental Study
  • Judy Z. Segal (bio)


Literature and Medicine has been in the vanguard of publication on illness narratives in general and cancer narratives in particular. As a contribution to the conversation in the journal, I would like to describe research I have done recently on how the most popular and most available stories of cancer are received by people with cancer and those close to them. My "data" was collected recently, during the course of my own radiation treatments for breast cancer; I will soon explain why I have placed "data" in quotation marks.

Many illness stories circulate in public and they can do important public work. I wish, keeping in mind claims made by Arthur Frank about the importance of illness stories "in an age of authenticity and appropriation" (the subtitle of his essay), to look at certain illness stories critically.1 In this endeavor, I am indebted to a number of other authors, many of whom I will cite in what follows, and—this is the "data"—a corpus of reader emails sent to me in response to an op-ed I wrote for my local newspaper, the Vancouver Sun, at the beginning of Cancer Awareness Month, April, 2010. In that piece, I wrote about popular cancer stories and the expectations they create; I shared some of my own cancer experience; and I unintentionally prompted the archive on which I am reporting here. I understand that my data, because it simply appeared, unbidden, not under experimental conditions, is called, "wild data." The op-ed was called "Cancer Isn't the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me," and it is appended to this essay. [End Page 292]


The title of my op-ed made a true claim about my cancer experience. The claim should have been unsurprising, but it was a counterclaim in the context of current public discourse, despite the fact that my protestation was in harmony with much that has been written in breast-cancer critical work over the past 30 years and more. In 1980, Audre Lorde wrote, speaking of breast cancer, that, "[l]ike superficial spirituality, looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo."2 In 1994, Sharon Batt, writing on the politics of breast cancer, said that the "Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me" narrative might capture "one side of breast cancer—the need for hope," but it leaves a lot unsaid.3 In 1997, Jackie Stacey wrote about the problems of viewing cancer narratives as stories that turned people with cancer into heroes.4 Ten years later, S. Lochlann Jain wrote that oft-told breast-cancer narratives "pinkwash the experience of the disease, diffusing other kinds of emotion, making them illegitimate, or worse, making them into something illegible."5 While, over the course of the years of this critique, we have seen some changes in the public account of the cancer experience—notably, the growing influence of Breast Cancer Action (about which more later)6—many still seek the "bright side" of breast cancer; "hope" is still the keyword in cancer talk; the hero narrative is still dominant, and the dominant narrative is still pink. Diane Price Herndl, explaining her own ambivalence about certain personal cancer narratives, notes that one of the things that makes her uneasy about the most publicly-circulating, triumphal, stories of breast cancer is their coda, written or unwritten, that says, "Be like me."7

I share the concerns of Lorde, Batt, Stacey, and Jain, and I think Herndl is right, and I would point to another cancer-story coda that says (like a mean girl), "I'm so great." This is the way the standard narrative goes: "I found a lump; I was scared, but I fought; with my positive attitude, I beat cancer; now I'm a better person. (I'm so great.)" It is worth noting that cancer narratives do so often begin with a discovered lump or a worrisome mammogram, when, in fact, a cancer's own biography has a...


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