The “war on cancer” was launched during the Nixon Administration in 1971, but the term was part of the national dialog on cancer at least early as 1913. Pink ribbons have been ubiquitous symbols of breast cancer awareness and fund-raising promotions since the mid-1980s, but “cancer weeks” fostering awareness of the disease and gala fund-raisers staged by wealthy socialites were popular beginning at least 100 years earlier. Early detection was touted as a cure at the beginning of the 20th century, long before any treatments other than primitive surgery were available, not to mention tests like mammography to detect the disease.
Elaine Schattner provides these and myriad other surprising insights from our long and tortuous relationship with cancer in From Whispers to Shouts: The Ways We Talk about Cancer (Columbia UP, 2023). It is a fascinating book that traces how public perception and portrayal of cancer in our conversations, media and culture has evolved over the past century and a half. Whispers reflect the fear and shame that have led many to hide a cancer diagnosis; shouts mark the advocacy and activism that is giving patients voice in both the doctor’s office and the public stage.
Dr. Schattner, a medical oncologist, breast cancer survivor, and journalist enlists an intriguing cast of characters to tell the story: U.S. presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland and Joe Biden; Babe Ruth; Nat King Cole; the writer Susan Sontag; AIDS activist Larry Kramer; Gilda Radner and Nora Ephron are just a few of those she features whose stories have helped shape our changing attitudes toward a disease that has long been viewed as a death sentence, but one that for increasing numbers of patients is now a manageable illness with prospects for meaningful survival.
In the past 25 years, effective new, but costly drugs that target molecular drivers of tumors or unleash the immune system against the disease have transformed treatment for many patients. The rise of the internet and social media has vastly changed how we learn and talk about cancer. Dr. Schattner describes both good and bad ramifications of these disruptive events and says what is needed is greater understanding of the treatability of the disease.
Ron Winslow, a former long-time medical reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, is a freelance medical and science journalist.
Ron Winslow, a former long-time medical and science reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, is a freelance medical and science journalist.