Tuned In

We Need More Writing About Cancer, Not Less

When it comes to illness, the real problem is undersharing.

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Amid the shouting over Emma and Bill Keller’s weird journalistic tag-teaming of Stage 4 cancer patient and advocate Lisa Bonchek Adams–you can read Margaret Sullivan’s capable summary here–I’m going to take what’s probably the best first step in situations like this and admit what I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a public health expert. I’m not deeply familiar with Lisa Adams’ personal situation. I don’t have a loved one with cancer, and I don’t have cancer myself. Yet.

It’s precisely because of all I don’t know that I appreciate what Adams is doing by tweeting and blogging her experience. The implied critique in both Kellers’ pieces–that in one way or another, Adams might be oversharing about her situation and or her treatment approach–seems bizarre. If anything, experiences like Adams’ are buried in our media culture: with very few exceptions, like Showtime’s The Big C, advanced cancer patients rarely get to be protagonists. As I wrote when reviewing Showtime’s remarkable documentary series Time of Death, which included several cancer patients, this kind of experience is a blank spot in our culture, so when people encounter it in their own lives, it can feel alien, uncanny, unmapped.

I want to be very careful about the comparison to those shows, because as Adams has been careful to emphasize in her writing, she’s not dying of cancer but living under cancer treatment. But the need is the same: it’s a widespread experience, yet one that people have too few cultural models for. If there were more Lisa Adamses, writing day in and out about all types of situations and treatment approaches, other patients might at least feel better prepared, less alone. But given our society’s avoidance of the topic–the mundane, everyday details of illness–oversharing should be our least worry. If anything, we’re undersharing.