The sickness of cancer

09 June 2020

The face of litter is changing. It used to be all Tim Hortons cups and cigarette butts. Now they’ve been joined by face masks and nitrile gloves. A lot of people celebrate the pandemic lockdown because of the restorative effect it has on our ecosystem. People notice the cleaner air and water. Maybe it just seems cleaner because there’s not as much dirt in it.

While there might be less grit in the air, there’s a lot more latex, nitrile, and plastic going to landfill. Guelph’s waste disposal guide tells us to put the gloves in the grey cart. Grocery stores won’t let customers bring their own reusable cloth bags. Either use the store’s bags or put a dozen eggs in your pocket. Any benefit flowing from bans on single use plastic bags is more than offset by the increased use and disposal of gloves, face masks, and grocery bags.

When the pandemic is behind us we might get back to saving the planet. In the meanwhile, I’m reading Malignant Metaphor, a memoir by Canadian journalist Alanna Mitchell. She wrote it after two of her close family members went through cancer treatment. It’s a fairly short book, and a quick read. In Chapter 3, she makes an interesting observation about cancer. The disease, she says, can be broken down into two distinct elements: an illness, and a sickness.

The disease is whatever is going on inside your body that should not be happening, what the doctors diagnose and treat. It can be broken down into two distinct elements. There’s the illness, the patients’ subjective experience of the symptoms they bring to the doctor. The sickness is the social and cultural perception of the disease. Fear is one determinant of how a patient responds to treatment.

Take a look at the two diseases, and the social sickness, consuming our attention these days: COVID-19, cancer, and racism. Covid has knocked cancer to the kerb in the public’s consciousness, but they are both front and centre in my mind. A third sickness, racism, has been loose in the land for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s hard to give equal attention to three simultaneous nightmares.

The racism spotlight is rightfully focused today on the country to our south, but we are not immune. A lot of our history, and many of our institutions, are infected. Black Canadians have suffered the pain of racism forever, but the sickness is wider than that. It devours the heart, soul and body of civil society.

The sickness began when European colonizers first arrived on Turtle Island and took land from the Indigenous inhabitants. It worsened over time. Some of the milestones in the history of racism in Canada are:

  • Treatment of the Chinese labourers who built the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s;
  • 355 passengers on the Komagata Maru, mostly Sikh men, were sent back to India after their ship was turned away from Vancouver in 1914;
  • Theft of land and property from Japanese Canadians who lost their homes after being imprisoned during World War 2;
  • A ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees was not allowed to dock in 1939 and was sent back to Hitler’s concentration camps.
  • It wasn’t that long ago that our Prime Minister dressed up in minstrel black face for a costume party.
  • Two of the candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party, Derek Sloan and Jim Karahalios are openly racist.

The sickness has deep structural roots in Canada.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully cognizant of cancer as an illness. It invaded my body and the poisons that kill tumours and carcinomas are beyond my level of competence. The doctors and nurses are trained and paid to look after all that. I am learning more and more about the sickness of cancer and what it does to our personal and social equilibrium.

In Malignant Metaphor, Mitchell says Cancer cells protect themselves and keep growing and spreading until they commit suicide by killing the host body. This has become a powerful literary metaphor for the breakdown of various social constructs. “One reason cancer is so powerfully resonant,” she writes, “is that it is a metaphor for what humans are doing to the planet. And what humans are doing to the planet is a metaphor for cancer.”

Nothing strikes fear in people more than the prospect of contracting an incurable disease. In days gone by, it was smallpox, polio, measles, mumps, and others. Concerted vaccination programs effectively eradicated them. Today it’s COVID-19 that keeps us indoors and two meters away from friends and family. After they develop a covid vaccine, there will still be cancer. It is the bogeyman we try to avoid, the name we fear to speak or hear.

Don’t be afraid to know its name and speak it out loud. Hold it up to the light where it can be examined and understood. This won’t make it more pleasant, but it will make it less frightening.


Here’s a list of places I’ve been hiding in since March. They are all comfortable rooms where your time won’t be wasted:


  1. Thanks. Al, for making the connections for us.

  2. again Alan thank you for your thoughtful and stimulating comments…..

  3. Alan. Thanks for the booklist. How are you feeling?

  4. Thank you for your very intelligent connections. They made me think differently about the difference between a sickness and an illness. I also appreciate the book list. I noticed that they were written in 2010 and after. I, too, searched and gobbled up anything I could about cancer when we traveled through Tom’s cancer journey in 2010. There wasn’t much available. I’m glad to see that it’s more up front and talked about now. It’s a fearful disease. And knowledge conquers fear.

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