cancer envy

I can see what they’re trying to do.  I can even see why they’re trying to do it.  But the ‘how’ just leaves me speechless.  Well no – that’s not quite true.  I’m bending Annie’s ear… “and another thing…” 

The cause of my disquiet is an advertising campaign by Pancreatic Cancer Action¹.  One image shows a young woman with pancreatic cancer and a caption ‘I wish I had breast cancer’.  Another shows a man wishing he had testicular cancer.

I don’t know why I feel quite so worked up about this.

The point this campaign is trying to make is that pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of the majority of the cancers we usually come across.  It also attracts less funding.

Perhaps my anger stems from guilt.  Survivor guilt.  I have the ‘right’ sort of cancer.   But how can any cancer be the right sort?

I write to Pancreatic Cancer Action to explain that this campaign is making me feel uneasy.  They reply that that’s the point – they want people to feel uneasy.  But what about people with other forms of cancer?  How are they meant to feel?  Am I meant to think myself lucky that I only had bowel cancer?  I can understand why someone with pancreatic cancer might say ‘yes’.  But don’t expect me to be happy about it.

PCA explains that they don’t actually wish they had cancer – they simply meant they wish they had one with a better survival rate.  That’s fine.  But if you have to explain your message – does that not mean, as a communiqué, it has failed?  And if what you say is not actually what you mean, then isn’t that a bit …disingenuous?

They apologise for any distress they’ve caused other cancer patients; that was not their intention.  Unfortunately it’s too late for that.  The internet is awash with claims and counter claims.  The anger is palpable;  ‘Many are saying the campaign is “insensitive”. I will tell you what is insensitive, it’s all those people running around waving pink in your face ….’.. (For those who might be unaware, the colour pink is associated with Breast Cancer).  The media² have been quick to dub this the ‘cancer envy’ campaign.

It’s like a couple of schoolboys circling each other for a fight they don’t really want, shouting, “my dad’s bigger than your dad…”

‘I wish I had’ is a negative campaign, relying on shock tactics to get its message across.  Like all such strategies there are unintended consequences, which distract from the original message.  There is a danger that, rather than educate, the campaign may perpetuate ignorance – especially if we start rating cancers as if they were contestants in a game show, like … oh … for arguments sake … snog, marry, avoid.  (Not that I ever watch it.  Or have even heard of it.)

I can see someone saying “there’s no point in me giving up smoking because lung cancer’s not as bad a pancreatic cancer”.  Extreme?  Perhaps.  Unlikely?  Perhaps not.  Perfectly rational people will go to extraordinary lengths to justify a habit or lifestyle they know might well kill them.  Or rather – kill others.  Not them personally you understand.

Shock advertising has been around a long time.  While we tend to remember the image, we often become desensitized to the message.  We’ve seen it all before.  Although I admit, not cancer envy.  That’s a new one on me.

There is another campaign around at the moment that’s based on a comparison with breast cancer.  Men United sets out to do for prostate cancer ‘what women did for breast cancer’.  It’s a ‘come on lads, we can do this’ approach.  Everything it says is positive.  There is no envy at the increase in detection and survival rates for breast cancer – rather, it is seen as an achievement, something to aspire to.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action ‘I wish I had’ campaign is by its very nature divisive, dragging in its wake, albeit unintentionally, blame and envy.   Surely if anyone could express a wish about cancer it would be that they didn’t have it at all?  Not a longing to swap it for another.

As I said at the beginning, I can see what PCA are trying to do.  And their apologies to those they’ve upset are genuine.  But they are unrepentant; their message, they believe is just too important.  It’s a high-risk strategy.

This is of course just my own view and you may well disagree.  But I hope you will agree that it’s a sad day when people who already have enough to cope with because of this poxy disease, end up fighting each other about who’s got the worst deal.

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3 Responses to cancer envy

  1. Barbara Porter says:

    I, too, was more than dismayed when this advert appeared and for me, it says more about the so called ‘advertising gurus and communicators’, in clearly demonstrating their total lack of understanding of the emotionally destructive aspect of any form of cancer. With all the resources and dare I say it, ‘talents’ of those who ‘advise’ on advert content, It is incredible that they chose such controversial and divisive content. Perhaps a concerted campaign to draw attention to the all disparities and inequalities that exist in diagnosing and treating all forms of cancer would have more merit and carry greater impact.

  2. Sue Malleson says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

  3. JJ says:

    very eloquently put.

    I feel sad that the effect of this campaign could be to give one part of the cancer community bad feelings against another section. Like You said Ian about survivor guilt, we already feel guilty as we see others dying of the same disease without feeling even more guilty. I feel some resentment at the concept of my disease being demeaned

    I’ve had breast cancer and I hate all the pink stuff. Its so jolly and giggly, and trivialising. I think that it can play down the seriousness of the message. or make it sound like it isnt really a problem any more if you get a breast cancer dx.
    So many times I have had people tell me about some cancer wonder drug, and it makes me feel that really I’m making a fuss over nothing arent I, now its so easy to cure.
    They havent worked out that the bit about being alive after 5 years doesnt mean alive AND cancer-free.
    I do feel some sympathies for the general public getting such unhelpful messages and trying to make sense of them

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