Breast cancer is — for sufferers, for terrified families, for occasionally helpless medical professionals — a tragedy, if not one that always has an unhappy ending. And although the case of Martina Navratilova — who announced last week that she is about to undergo treatment for the illness — is upsetting for all concerned, what was really striking about her statement was the reaction: “The day I was told I had breast cancer was my own personal 9/11. I was completely shocked. This just goes to show [that] no matter how much you watch what you eat or exercise, you never know.”
Leaving aside the clunky 9/11 analogy (at least it’s more heartfelt than how the trope is used in the new Robert Pattinson film, Remember Me, in which 9/11 is an externalisation of the Twilight actor’s angst), the tennis legend’s shock that this could happen to her, despite doing everything “right” — except get regular check-ups, as she admitted with self-recrimination — is an all too common reaction, particularly in the United States where Navratilova lives.
Advice on how to avoid “the big C”, as Americans like to call it, is thus ubiquitous, lucrative and often seized upon as a guarantee. One need only look at the cover lines on women’s and health magazines: “Five superfoods that help prevent cancer!” and “The best anticarcinogenic supplements!” are two taken from a skating glance at the newsstand.
In her excellent book, Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich traces this attitude to the post-Calvinist mid-19th century, when Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of the anti-medicine Christian Science religion) advocated positive thinking as the cure-all — an approach now promoted by many US celebrities, particularly Oprah Winfrey. This trumpeting of what Ehrenreich calls “attitude over experience” is not necessarily bad when applied to, say, writing a novel or running a marathon.
But when it comes to health, it tips into suggesting that one’s body is completely in one’s control, and thus physical breakdowns are manifestations of personal failings.
Although this can be comforting, it can be a form of self-flagellation. One of Ehrenreich’s most poignant anecdotes concerns a woman who put her faith in “mind/body medical guru” Deepak Chopra. “Even though I follow the treatments, have come a long way in unburdening myself of toxic feelings, have forgiven everyone, changed my lifestyle to include meditation, prayer, proper diet, exercise and supplements, the cancer keeps coming back. Am I missing a lesson here?” she asked Chopra.
Her guru replied: “Sometimes cancer is simply very pernicious and requires utmost diligence and persistence to eventually overcome it.” So if she died, she just hadn’t been sufficiently diligent.
The pursuit of health has slotted into that niche of many people’s minds that religion used to occupy: if I go to church — or eat five portions of fruit and veg a day — nothing bad will happen to me. Yet on the very day that news broke about Navratilova, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute made its own announcement: eating fruit and vegetables has only “a very modest” effect on protection against cancer.
No one likes to hear that their wellbeing is dependent on the whims of chance, but that is, ultimately, the case. If you feel tired, or bloated, or sad, maybe you don’t have a wheat allergy — maybe that’s just the fluctuating human condition. The body is imperfect and often unpredictable. Aside from not doing anything obviously stupid — hoovering drugs, chuffing fags, stepping in front of a bus — there is nothing one can do to guarantee a happy ending or (and this is often the unspoken aim of health obsessives) prevent an ending, full stop.
Bad diseases happen to good people, even good people who eat fruit. —