I’m reposting this (from June last year) partly as a result of a little chat I had with Jo Carroll on Twitter yesterday morning, and partly because I am heartily sick of hearing news clips about how debt/unemployment/financial crises are ’spreading like cancers’. Every time I hear someone say cancer, a little tremor of recognition and memory goes through me. I don’t mind, if they are actually talking about cancer. If they are lazily leaning for the closest metaphor, I do.
As you know, I think the language we use around cancer is powerful, and important. I talk about a dance, not a fight. I talk about having had a cancer, singular, not cancer, the big scary thing. On the title of this blog, on the cover of my book, the ‘c’ of cancer is not capitalised. (That not-capital c is the fifth thing that’s important on the cover of the book, by the way, along with the dragon, the snowdrops, the blue sky, and the total absence of pink.)
So something that annoys me a great deal is the use and over-use of something described as being ‘like a cancer’. Debt, according to one well-known author, is ‘spreading like a cancer’. Corruption at FIFA is also like a cancer, apparently, and a footballer I’ve never heard of - this is not surprising as I’ve only really heard of David Beckham and, of course, Ryan Giggs – has been called ‘a cancer on football‘. Other things spreading like cancer include wind farms, Iranian influence, illegal backpacker hostels , Starbucks and even deserts.
On one level, I can see why people reach for this analogy. We all understand that cancer creeps through the body and often we don’t realise that it’s there until it’s too late. But every time I read or hear someone compare something to a cancer, a little shudder goes through me. Because to me, ‘like a cancer’ means much more than something that spreads and you don’t notice until it’s too late. ‘Like a cancer’ means long sad afternoons, ongoing health problems, turning points, fear, panic, unnecessary pain and anxiety. ‘Like a cancer’ means something that drains the colour from everyone’s faces. ‘Like a cancer’ means a complicated, unlooked-for, terrible time in your life. That’s what runs through my mind when I hear someone on TV, the radio, or in the press describe something as ‘like a cancer’. I wish they’d take the trouble to find a less lazy metaphor. Spreading like bindweed? Like gossip? Like our old friend wildfire? Like Starbucks? After all, we don’t describes burglaries, takeovers and new roads as being ‘like a rape’.
Come on, journalists, speakers, broadcasters, speechmakers, public figures. Find another way to make your point. I’m sure that many of the people who have danced with cancer will appreciate your effort.