Cultural Perspectives on Cancer: From Metaphor to Advocacy

Advanced Seminar

April 30–May 4, 2006

From expressions such as “the war on cancer” to “poverty as a cancerous blight,” cancer is steeped in metaphors. Anthropologists have spent the last few decades both creating and explicating these metaphors. Their work has examined cancer symbols and etiologies, concepts of risk, prevention and detection, treatment and healing, communication practices, the role of gender, and science’s ability to progress in finding cancer genes, to name a few. One result is the involvement of anthropologists in applied research, interventions, and advocacy. This participation however, has led to concern over their ability to maintain a critical position. It is feared that greater participation in the medical agenda of alleviating human suffering necessarily leads to a “medicalization” of anthropologists through which they succumb to the social constructions of biomedicine.

Such issues were addressed in the Advanced Seminar held at the School for Advanced Research from March 30 to April 4, 2006. Co-chaired by Juliet McMullin and Diane Weiner, the Seminar examined the ways in which ethnography can illuminate the metaphors surrounding cancer and facilitate the health of individuals and communities through advocacy. Central questions considered by the participants include (1) What are the diverse roles that anthropologists have played in the understandings of cancer as a cultural metaphor?; (2) What are the roles of anthropologists in understanding cancer as an indicator of health disparities?; and (3) What are new directions for moving beyond metaphors into positions of advocacy?

Many of the Seminar discussions highlighted the disease itself. Human inability to control cancer may result in a range of actions. For example, individuals often code and classify symptoms through metaphors, perhaps to attach cultural meaning to what may be incomprehensible experiences. As co-chairs McMullin and Weiner described, “Since its naming, this disease has been steeped in metaphors; Hippocrates, noticing the long veins radiating from a lump in the breast, named the disease ‘karkinoma,’ Greek for ‘crab’ (‘cancer’ in Latin). This imagery served not only as a description of the disease on the body but also for the way it ate the flesh and its continual move throughout the body.” Today, biomedical metaphors include images of the “fight against cancer,” with scientists “leading the battle.” While grabbing our attention and aiding us to categorize the uncontrollable, such metaphors facilitate stigmatization of individuals and groups while also shifting our attention away from the social inequalities that hasten the death of some and delay that of others. For example, while the pink ribbon campaign raises our awareness of breast cancer, it is also has caused us to “think pink cute and happy thoughts,” not of someone vomiting from chemotherapy.

According to the Seminar’s co-chairs, “The definition, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer are predominantly determined by biomedicine, but clearly cancer does not ‘belong’ to biomedicine.” The Advanced Seminar accordingly embraced both theoretical and applied analyses of cancer to peel away the layers of metaphors that make it seem as if cancer is simply a biological process. In unraveling these layers, participants revealed social relations that impact the physical, spiritual, emotional, and social suffering of the illness. The assessment of these social relations also provided the framework to examine the tensions between distinct knowledge systems and narratives that claim “truth,” from biomedical to Native viewpoints. Co-chairs McMullin and Weiner conclude, “Critiquing the naturalization of difference is precisely the goal of anthropology. It serves as the launching point for critical examinations of institutions, science, and politics as well as advocacy efforts.” As a result of this Seminar, participants contributed both to anthropological knowledge and to the identification of inequities surrounding cancer. Anthropology was highlighted as a discipline that can push through the hegemony of biomedicine and contribute to the transformation and alleviation of suffering from this disease.

Juliet McMullin, Chair Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside Embodied Inequalities: Perspectives from Latina Cervical Cancer Survivors
Diane Weiner, Chair California Native American Research Center for Health Changing Views of Cancer: Three Decades of Native California Perspectives
Leo R. Chavez Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine Wasting Away in Neoliberal-ville: Mexican Immigrant Women's Views of Cervical Cancer, Social Inequality, and Gender Relations
Deborah Erwin Professor, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Cancer Survivors: Metaphors and Symbolism of New Shamans to Communicate the Spiritual and Political Battle for Others Cancer Survivors: New Shamans in the World of Cancer Disparities
Suzanne Huertin-Roberts Health Disparities Research, NCI Self and Other in Cancer Health Disparities: Negotiating Power and Boundaries
Marjorie Kagawa-Singer Associate Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles Community Partnerships in Cancer Control
Anastasia Karakasidou Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Wellesley College Landscapes of Health and Illness in Modern Crete, Greece
Simon Craddock Lee Cancer Prevention Fellow, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, National Cancer Institute Cancer of Political Identity: The Culture of Health Disparities
Holly F. Mathews Professor, Department of Anthropology, East Carolina University Cancer Support Groups and Health Advocacy: One Size Doesnt Fit All
Paul Stoller Professor, Department of Anthropology, West Chester University and Temple University Remissioning Life/Reconfiguring Anthropology

Follow us: