Smile or Die: Cells as Selves & Patient as Narrator of the Future   2 comments

In Teratologies; A Cultural Study of Cancer, Jackie Stacey describes Western culture’s new sense of self at the cellular level, a philosophy which seems to agree with both Biomedicine and Alternative Medicine.

“The idea of the cell as a unit of the body which can be influenced by physical and mental ‘input’ is especially appealing because cancer is seen as a disease of cellular dysfunction. ….Rather than being invaded by an external threat, the problem lies within: we may be a danger to ourselves.  Both conventional and alternative accounts represent the cell as a metaphor of the self.”  (Stacey 149)

For me, I see My Spirit as Myself (as opposed to Our Bodies, Ourselves take).  I see my body as a vessel for my soul/ spirit.  In Bright-Sided; How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America, Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “[T]he body has always seemed to me like a retarded Siamese twin dragging along behind me, a hysteric really, dangerously overreacting, in my case, to everyday allergens and minute ingestions of sugar.”  (I wonder what Ehrenreich constitutes as “me”, whether mind or spirit, but obviously she does not equate body with self, which seems more like a separate troublesome entity.)  (Ehrenreich 21)  I can’t say that I disagree with the body remembering physical trauma, but I don’t necessarily agree that my mind (or even spirit) has control over what my body (or cells) chooses to remember or embrace in the future. 

As a “Zebra” I spent many years being told my symptoms were psychosomatic and that I was perfectly physically healthy.  After it was determined that there was indeed something wrong with me (even on a metabolic & genetic level) American Alternative medicine culture dictates that if I think of myself as ill I am indeed and thus I am perpetuating my illness; as if my mind has complete control over my body.  This is a distortion of Eastern medicine philosophy which in fact does not see one as controlling the other, but rather a “balance” needs to be in place.  (Stacey 111, 133- 134)

For instance, it is safe to assume that if I allow myself to be in stressful situations and do not take measures to learn to cope with stress, I will physically deteriorate.  Stress worsening symptomology has been proven time and again for me and fellow Dysautonomia patients.

However, the idea of mind control over one’s body takes this to a whole other level.  It creates a cultural dynamic in which the patient, regardless of actually being diagnosed with a physical ailment, is again blamed for their illness. Their negative energy provoked the physical ailment.  And if they do not get better, it is their lack of positive outlook and attitude that caused them to fail in getting better.

Recently, I was at Florida Integrative Medical Center.  (Acupuncture and massage have proven helpful in lessening symptoms.)  When the receptionist asked me if I would like to schedule a next appointment within the week, I laughed and said, “Well, yes, I guess that’s best.  I’m a sicky.  I need all the help I can get—and sooner rather than later.”  The receptionist lightly scolded me for such a statement under the pretense that if I think of myself as a “sicky” this will indeed make me a sick.  I let the comments roll off of me, because I’ve encountered such thinking all too often.  I still find them disturbing though.  To me I finally feel happy to allow myself to think of myself as a “sicky.”  It’s incredibly freeing.  I had denied my true self within a culture of positivism.  By denying my disability itself and then the fears/ anger/ despair it caused me, I automatically set myself up for failure among the healthy.

In her chapter “Smile or Die:  The Bright Side of Cancer,” Barbara Ehrenreich investigates cancer culture from the perspective of a dry-humor cancer survivor herself (and incidentally she is a former cellular immunologist.)  “[R]ather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugar coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost.  First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings or anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer.  This is a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, but it is not so easy on the afflicted.” (Ehrenreich, 41)

“Jimmie Holland, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, writes that cancer patients experience a kind of victim blaming:

It began to be clear to me about ten years ago that society was placing another undue and inappropriate burden on patients that seemed to come out of the popular beliefs about the mind-body connection.  I would find patients coming in with stories of being told by well meaning friends, ‘I’ve read all about this—if you got cancer, you must have wanted it…’ Even more distressing was the person who said, ‘I know I have to be positive all the time and that is the only way to cope with cancer—but it’s so hard to do.  I know that if I get sad, or scared or upset, I am making my tumor grow faster and I will have shortened my life.’

Clearly, the failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease.”  (Ehrenreich, 42-43)  The patient has the responsibility to write their own narrative of health (or disease), instead of a divine God or fate determining narrative. (Stacey 8-9, 15)  “What of those who declined rapidly, who cried with fear and terror in the face of death, who live haunted by the threat of cancer returning or for whom there is no hope?  What of those who do not smile bravely?  In the success/failure binarisms of hero narratives these people can only be seen as failures.”  (Stacey 15)


Can the objectification of the body be a positive ideology for women after all?  If Body is not Self, but rather Spirit is Self, what is wrong with the objectification of the body? Its cells are not little personalities, microcosms of self, but rather gears within a vessel.  Wouldn’t objectification of self then promote less blame on the sick for their illnesses, and yet, still promote self-management of care for one’s body?  (like taking the time for a regular oil change in your car, or reading up on your car’s ‘recalls’ that need to be fixed, or listening to the strange sounds your car makes when it is not working properly and then going to a service center to find out what’s wrong).  Are people who buy into a strong mind-body connection less likely to go to their doctors if they think something is wrong, because they think it is something they themselves can control or fix (or “will” themselves better), and if they cannot seem to control or fix themselves then they have somehow failed themselves?



Ehrenreich, Barbara.  Bright-Sided; How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Print.

Stacey, Jackie.  Teratologies; A Cultural Study of Cancer.  London:  Routledge, 1997.  Print.

Posted October 24, 2010 by gentyrrell in Uncategorized

2 responses to “Smile or Die: Cells as Selves & Patient as Narrator of the Future

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  1. I think a partial answer to your question might be found in Stacey, as she recounts how she learned of her diagnosis. In their concentration on her body, the doctor, consultant, and oncologist forget her as a person, revealing the “insensitivity of biomedical practices to the needs of the patient, other than those of the physical body” (106). Isn’t this the ultimate objectification, to be seen as just a rare tumor, or just a specimen by which to train medical students?

    Like you, I was troubled by the self-help notion of “cancer personality types” (115), and I remember this discourse well from when my father had cancer. It’s a form of “blame the victim” that is easy for frightened and depressed patients and families to buy into, especially when dealing with the unknown nature of cancer. Stacey expresses it well when she asks “what kind of person does not know they have cancer? What kind of body hides the evidence so effectively?” (5-6). When you are desperate for answers or reasons, you grasp at everything, including the idea that you can will it away if you only have a good enough attitude.

    I don’t see my mind as separate from my body (especially when I’m suffering from a cold, as I am this week–mind and body are both pretty pitiful), and I harbor no illusions I can “will” myself healthy from something as invisible and insidious as cancer. I’ve seen too much of it, too close. It scares me because you never know what your body might be hiding, and no matter how strong the mind-body connection is, sometimes the body just isn’t talking.

  2. Gen, This is a great response that touches on the issues I was thinking about in my response. I must read Ehrenreich’s book–I like her work but had never heard of that one until you mentioned it last week. The question of whether one invested in mind-body connection might be less likely to go to the doctor is interesting. My response is an emphatic yes, depending on the individual’s relationship with Western medicine. I will try every holistic approach possible (including sweating through bronchitis for six days of Bikram until I was too sick to continue) before going to the doctor. This is scary because, as in Stacey’s case, one may be sick for a long time before they feel it or show it on their physical body. Many people die because of their mistrust of (or lack of access to) biomedicine. While I am a proponent of natural cures, chemotherapy is often the only cure for cancer. Sometimes we need to relax and think positive and sometimes we need a medical doctor.

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