Cancer Makes a Killing

Have we turned a disease into a celebrity?

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Cancer is a rock star. I want to hire cancer’s PR firm. The damn thing has diversified, outsourced, broken into every market. It has clothing lines, houseware accessories, those fucking annoying rubber bracelets that give adolescent boys the excuse to sport “I ♥ boobies” on their wrists. Cancer pushes magnet ribbons of varied hue and trinkets that would be the envy of any swag-bag-toting conventioneer. Even firearms distributors are trying to profit from cancer’s PR glow. Now you can rob the corner store while raising awareness of breast cancer with your pink-slide Walther “Hope Edition” handgun. We just love cancer.

There are marches and rallies and all-night Relay for Life events and well-intentioned kids roaming high school halls panhandling like a bunch of Moonies. Cancer has crowded venerable diseases out of the limelight. Remember the March of Dimes? How about the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon? Even AIDS takes a backseat to cancer, and AIDS gets to lather up its campaigns with sex and drugs.

Now, having cancer is really, really bad, especially when you happen to have pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer like my 26-year-old niece, Lindsey Miller, who was diagnosed in October 2010. In case you’re not up on your cancer taxonomies, pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer is pretty rare, especially malign, and it killed Steve Jobs.

This is where cancer really shows its fiendish marketing expertise. See, when you associate something with celebrity, it suddenly becomes more exciting. When you say, “So you have the same kind of cancer that killed Steve Jobs?” there is a recognizable rush of vicarious contact with fame followed immediately by the sickening realization that you just played celebrity association with a fatal disease in the same way you might say, “Wow, is that the same dress Penelope Cruz wore to the Oscars?”

My niece’s dance with cancer illustrates perfectly how this Madison Avenue juggernaut of a disease toys with its victims: first crushing them with a diagnosis, then painting them with varying shades of fame and showering them with gifts, all in the name of branding.

Lindsey, whose name I include with her permission, graduated from UC Santa Barbara, did a few years in Chicago as a journalist, and is now an urban-planning graduate student at UCLA. She is bright, vibrant, funny, articulate and beautiful. She has also suffered through horrific surgery, having whole organs pulled out and huge chunks hacked off others. In cancer’s eyes, she is perfect ad copy.

This is cancer’s unasked-for Faustian bargain: It buys lives in exchange for the “cancer card,” a sort of loyalty rewards con-game where trinkets such as a “heightened sense of the beauty and fragility of life” are offered in exchange for pinning you up on its “winners” wall and trying to kill you as tragically as possible. You’re forced to take whatever scraps it throws your way, because what else are you going to do?

As I said before, the girl is articulate. She has this crazy need to write and is great at it. And since she found out she has cancer, her blog posts have been especially good—really heart-rending, compelling stuff. So now I read them and think, Damn, that kid can write! Yeah, and her output is up because she has something compelling to write about: cancer. Which isn’t what makes her writing good, but it sure as hell sharpens the pencil and gets it whipping across the page with mortal urgency. So now I say … what exactly? Loved your last post, Lindsey. Your list of followers is growing by the minute!

Evidently, one of the perks of having cancer, at least in L.A., is you get to see movies about cancer for free. So late last year Lindsey got invited, through the Cancer Support Community of West L.A., to go with a bunch of other people who have cancer to watch 50/50, a film about a 27-year-old man who is diagnosed with cancer. She was suitably moved by the experience, so moved in fact that she decided to ask out Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film’s star. So she and some pals from Chicago put together a 38-second video, posted it on YouTube and waited.

Although the idea of using YouTube to score celebrity dates was hardly original, cancer injected its cachet into the mix and, bam, the video went viral. Pretty soon Lindsey’s face was all over major news outlets: Huffington Post and ABC and Fox News and Glamour picked up the story. It blew across the Atlantic and onto the pages of the Daily Mail. Global fame. Messages from all over the world poured in, wishing her luck, telling their own cancer stories and sometimes donating cash.

At the family Christmas and Hanukkah celebration of 2011, Lindsey’s flash of fame effervesced around the long table lit with candles and smiles and the warmth of too-rare gatherings.

Together at the traditional kids’ end of the table, Lindsey, her sisters and my daughters scooped potatoes, ladled gravy and speculated like schoolgirls.

“So, do you think he will call?”

“Maybe he’ll send a car.”

“At least he should have one of his ‘people’ contact you.”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe. But whatever, it was fun just making the video.”

And as I smiled with them, I wished she had never made the video, that she was just a young woman with a mildly excessive academic workload, wondering whether she will go out with a regular guy she met in a regular way. But cancer co-opts everyone. It spreads its malignancy in bodies and in the media and in our relationships. It makes us say inane things to people we love in an effort to say something. It corrupts us and uses us and turns our wonderfully normal lives into mockeries of joy.

The cancer fundraising campaigns are there to make a villain of cancer, to rally resources to bring down the bad guy. But cancer has become a bloody, grinning Joker, upstaging Batman and getting all the cool T-shirt and poster coverage. “Why so serious,” indeed. And just like the Joker, it doesn’t seem cancer can ever be truly defeated. It takes a few hits, like any good villain, but always comes back for the sequel, upping the body count with some new and nefarious scheme and torturing second-string starlets for its own and the public’s enjoyment.

So do what you need to do, because, like Lindsey, you really have no choice: Donate cash, wear the lame wristbands, walk around a park or high school track all night, because giving up isn’t really an option. But also remember exactly what or whom you are glorifying next time you slip on a boobies bracelet or stick a magnet to your Buick. Take the celebration down a notch. Remember, you’re trying to kill cancer, not get into its party.

By the way, Joseph Gordon-Levitt never called.