When I was first diagnosed with blood cancer earlier this year, I struggled to make sense of what was happening. My mind jumped to the few stories I’d read about cancer. The problem is I hadn’t been exposed to a wide narrative.
The narratives of The Fault In Our Stars by John Green and Before I Die by Jenny Downham kept playing over and over in my head. And to top it all off I couldn’t get the lyrics to ‘Cancer’ by My Chemical Romance out of my head*. These stories all end the same tragic way and it terrified me.
I was relieved to find, after speaking to fellow patients going through treatment (as well as their family members), that I was not alone in this initial reaction to my diagnosis. Her Sister’s Keeper (the film) came up in conversation a couple of times, as well as documentaries and TV programs. Everyone’s go-to example of cancer was a story of terminal illness. Stories shape us. Even if we know logically that cancer isn’t a death sentence, it is difficult to break that association.
A Guardian article describes cancer books thus: ‘A sense of hopelessness tends to emanate from books on illness, with a grim finish line that the reader knows is coming.’ Now, I don’t necessarily agree that all these books are ‘hopeless’ but I do worry that they function primarily to give those untouched by cancer a cathartic cry, before they go away feeling ‘inspired’ and happy they don’t have cancer.
This is perhaps a cynical view and maybe some cancer books that portray death are helpful for those with incurable cancer. To be clear, the books and films mentioned are not necessarily bad representations of cancer. For example, The Fault In Our Stars* explores the loneliness of cancer and Before I Die* refuses to romanticise death. These books aren’t bad. It would just be nice if there was more choice on offer.
Because, whilst it’s important that YA and adult fiction alike explore death, there are a disproportionate amount of high profile stories about young people dying of (usually) blood cancer (e.g. The Fault In Our Stars, Before I Die/Now Is Good, Never Eighteen, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Ways To Live Forever, My Sister’s Keeper film adaptation).
This could skew our perception of actual survival rates. The truth is a majority of children, teenagers and young adults survive their cancer and we need some stories about them.
More than 8 in 10 (82-85%) young people diagnosed with cancer in the UK survive their disease for five years or more (2001-05). Cancer Research UK
Thankfully, social media is changing the narrative around cancer. The podcast You, Me And The Big C which talks candidly about cancer is a brilliant example of this, as well as the hundreds of people sharing their realities of cancer on Instagram and Twitter. Deborah James’ book F*** You Cancer also looks promising.
Hopefully, literature, film and TV will follow in the footsteps of these examples. Seeing people living with and beyond cancer is so helpful, not only because it provides hope for those going through treatment, but also because it shows you what life after cancer can look like. It would be amazing to see more diverse cancer stories and more cancer survivors in literature, TV and film, because we exist. There’s loads of us.
Let me know what you think of cancer books. Do you have any recommendations? Or, if you’d rather focus on something more lighthearted and less cancer-y this festive season, check out my previous blog post on Books To Soothe Your Soul.
*as well as ‘September’ by Earth, Wind & Fire, weirdly.