The Undying: deeply thought-provoking account of living with cancer
Anne Boyer dissects the social structures and cliches around cancer with perceptive grace
Paddle Diva team at the Hamptons Paddle for Pink race to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in Sag Harbor, New York. Anne Boyer seizes the language and political economy of illness. Photograph: Sonia Moskowitz
The men’s health charity, Prostate Cancer UK, recently ran a campaign aimed at football fans, encouraging men to help “relegate prostate cancer”. A similar campaign by Cancer Research UK urged men to “give bowel cancer the boot”. The same organisation also launched a drive, in partnership with the crispbread company Ryvita, encouraging people to take up sponsored walking: it was called “Walk All Over Cancer” and was soundtracked by Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walking. Its website sells T-shirts carrying the message: “Cancer, We’re Coming to Get You.” Fundraising for research into deadly diseases, which was once a staid and dignified business, must now be conducted in a register of inane jollity redolent of estate agents on a team-building exercise at a paintball centre.
The Americans, who invented this nonsense, have it worse. In a footnote in Anne Boyer’s The Undying, the American author and poet observes that “there are currently enough varieties of ‘F*ck Cancer’ T-shirts that a person could dress exclusively in ‘F*ck Cancer’ T-shirts for at least a month, and probably two, and never have to repeat a shirt or do laundry”. Another T-shirt tells cancer: “You messed with the wrong bitch”. At the less crass end of the spectrum are the pink ribbons associated with the “Pinktober” campaign for breast cancer awareness, which has been going since the early 1990s under the auspices of Estée Lauder and the Susan G Komen Foundation. Boyer has misgivings about these initiatives: with their culture of relentless platitude and enforced positivity, they foster in the public mind a false correlation between sanguinity and vitality – which implies, cruelly, that those who do not survive their illness have somehow let the side down.