After reading Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphor I’m left wondering whether the stories we tell others and ourselves about our bodies are truly ours—especially stories about diseases. Sontag’s work has me reconsidering my mother’s experience with breast cancer and how she carried herself as a woman with this disease.
My mother had a proclivity to use writing as a way to be heard and to advocate for immigrant women’s health in Canada. This was the mid-90s and breast cancer advocacy and rhetoric largely spoke to, and reflected, white middle-class women’s concerns. Relating a disease along classed and racial terms had (and still has) real life-impacting consequences in terms of access to care, stigma, prevention, support, and even death. Through her writing and activism, my mother occupied two spaces in Toronto’s breast cancer advocacy community: one, as an outsider resisting the narrowly defined ways women with the disease are (or aren’t) recognized; and two, as an insider participating in walks, fundraising, national meetings, and evoking similar language of victimhood and survivorship in her own narration of the disease.
When Sontag published Illness as Metaphor in 1978, the Pink Ribbon Campaign (making breast cancer awareness a household topic) was a little over a decade away. Sontag, then, was writing about the mythology and morality attached to various diseases such as tuberculosis, cancer, syphilis, and leprosy. She was tracing a genealogy, centuries long, of socially constructed ideas about these diseased bodies that romanticized, villainized, condemned, or stigmatized the inflicted. Sontag’s book intervenes on the notion that illness (especially certain kinds like TB and cancer) is representative of larger-than-life ideas about human existence and death, and argues that these metaphors are emblematic of social rhetoric, fears, morality, rather than the disease itself.
As a woman with breast cancer in the 1990s, my mother found herself in a transitioning community of women gaining momentum in combating and refusing the stigma attached to breast cancer. Those inflicted were turning into victims, then to survivors, and to heroines. The Pink Ribbon Campaign launched walks, marches, fundraising, and advocacy events. Women were creating a new social landscape to understand and combat this disease that so personally attacked one’s female anatomy.
But these grand heroic narratives—reminiscent of Second Wave Feminism—didn’t apply to women of color and poor women, such as my mother. So she fought to be heard, insisted that her concerns weren’t addressed in the larger movement, and helped start the first immigrant breast cancer support group in Toronto. She wrote about her experience as an immigrant woman with cancer in English and Japanese, she participated in community activities, gave keynote talks at conferences, and spoke to the media. She was undoubtedly a hero to me, and at the time her actions seemed to have lessened the burden of her disease on our family because of the “greater good.”
Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor has me rethinking what breast cancer really is and what it did to my mother. While my mother’s advocacy for immigrant women’s health is something I admire, the rhetoric she drew upon to invoke similar narratives of victimhood, survivorship, and heroism aren’t standing the test of time. As Sontag demonstrates, socially fabricated views on diseases change as society does. Without having the language or ability to speak plainly about her disease, I now realize my memories of my mother with breast cancer are largely veiled behind a narrative largely constructed outside of her.
When we “talked,” my mother rarely separated the breast cancer discourse (or her objection to it) from what was actually happening to her body and how she was doing. We didn’t talk about her imminent death, or her fears and hopes for me. She never told me “this is just cancer, and this is how I’m going to go.” She made it so much more than that and lived her seven years with the disease as a “survivor” and fought the “fight” it until the very end. With so few memories of talking about the disease, her death, and how to carry on without her, I’m left wondering exactly what she was fighting for? Whose legacy she was really leaving?
“But at that time perhaps nobody will want any longer to compare anything awful to cancer, since the interest of the metaphor is precisely that it refers to a disease so overlaid with mystification, so charged with the fantasy of inescapable fatality. Our views about cancer, and the metaphors we have imposed on it, are so much a vehicle for the large insufficiencies of this culture: for our shallow attitude toward death, for our anxieties about feeling, for our reckless improvident responses to our real ‘problems of growth,’ for our inability to construct an advanced industrial society that properly regulates consumption, and for our justified fears of the increasingly violent course of history” (Illness as Metaphor 87).