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Make peace, not war on cancer

5 March 2018
New play challenges conventions about living with cancer
A new musical play opening at The Seymour Centre dramatises the realities of living with cancer by revealing what happens when people have a life-shortening illness.
Image by Christa Holka

Naana Agyei-Ampadu in A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer. Photo: Christa Holka

 

The play, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer runs from 22-29 March at The Seymour. Among the questions it poses are:

What’s it like to feel tiny and powerless in the confines of a gigantic hospital while being prodded and poked by an endless succession of healthcare experts? What’s it like to die, visibly and slowly and painfully in a context and culture that’s so afraid of death?

The musical’s co-writer/co-producer, Bryony Kimmings, says she dislikes the language of cancer, especially words like ‘courage,’ and the mention of battles won or lost.

For me, being a pacifist in the 'war on cancer' means that you allow everybody to 'do' cancer however they want-to do what feels right for you.
Bryony Kimmings - co-writer/co producer, A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

“Our characters aren’t brave,” she told Guardian reporter, Rachel Cooke. “They don’t have that choice. Cancer is outside their control. That’s what’s so terrifying about it. For me, being a pacifist in the ‘war on cancer’ means that you allow everybody to ‘do’ cancer however they want—to do what feels right for you.”

Brought to Australia by the British Theatre company Complicité, the production is about to start a four-week season commencing in Melbourne before heading to Canberra and Sydney. The company’s production notes say the show aims to “widen the debate around cancer and its treatment,” in media, medicine, the arts and social circles.

“To come to terms with the disease, we need to understand it and to be able to talk openly about it. The show’s aim is to debunk myths, spark debate and demystify a disease that everyone fears and that one in three of us will suffer from.”

The University of Sydney’s Professor Janette Vardy agrees with some of these sentiments. A medical oncologist who established the Sydney Survivorship Centre at Concord Hospital, she admits the way we speak of cancer is slowly changing for the better.

In my grandparents' day you never spoke about it. My grandfather was diagnosed with a gastric cancer. He was opened up, closed and not even told he had widespread metastatic disease
Professor Janette Vardy, oncologist, Concord Hospital and University of Sydney

“In my grandparents’ day you never spoke about it. My grandfather was diagnosed with a gastric cancer. He was opened up, closed and not even told he had widespread metastatic disease, and very few family members or friends were told anything about it.

“I suspect this was especially the case if it was something considered too delicate to speak about, such as breast cancer or a gynaecological cancer, or perhaps prostate cancer.”

The Survivorship Clinic, which is for people with curable non-recurrent disease, embraces the fact that cancer impacts people in many ways, not just the physical.

“When a person first comes to the clinic they’re seen by a medical specialist, a cancer nurse specialist, a psychologist, a dietician and an exercise physiologist,” says Dr Vardy.

“Together we create a survivorship care plan that includes a focus on healthy lifestyle and suggests a wide range of programs available through the Survivorship Centre, which is a cottage on the grounds of the hospital.

The Centre offers courses on mindfulness, yoga, Qigong, diet, exercise, music and art therapy, and managing the effects of long term cancer and the side effects of treatment.

Forty five years ago, US President Richard Nixon declared a political 'war' on cancer that has so far spent more than $200 billion in efforts to defeat the disease.

Today, the political war on cancer is global and has become part of the cultural Kool-Aid that says cancer is public enemy number one, and that we must defeat it at any cost.

Deborah Cumming, who died of lung cancer, wrote that she believed that 'cancer is an insistent opportunity to learn that in dying we are alive, in living we are dying.'
Author and academic, Dr Susan Gubar

To that end, millions of people have been conscripted to raise the billions of dollars it takes to wage war on cancer. Daffodils, fun runs, pink ribbons, shaved heads, moustaches—there’s no end of heroic deeds we’re asked to support in this holy war.

The battle narrative is especially evident in the countless books on the subject. Titles such as “Defeat Cancer,” “A Cancer Battle Plan,” “You Can Fight Cancer and Win,” “Fighting Cancer With Knowledge and Hope” underscore the idea that living with/dying from cancer isn’t an option. Cancer is intolerable. A fight to the death is the only way out.

Long term chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments have a host of impacts on cancer patients, the most common being fatigue, nausea, nerve damage, and difficulty with focused thinking, sometimes called “chemo brain”.

The author and academic, Dr Susan Gubar, who has ovarian cancer, has written that some patients feel “besieged” by treatment fatigue.

“Is treatment fatigue like combat fatigue?, she wondered in a recent New York Times article. “The enervation of chemotherapy and radiation — both derived from warfare technologies — demoralizes us as regimens multiply and at times it seems impossible to go on.”

Some patients are so wearied by treatment that they surrender, content to spend their remaining time making peace with their cancer and advancing death.

“I am not yet in this place,” says Susan Gubar. “But I honor those who decide to lay down arms. Deborah Cumming, who died of lung cancer, wrote that she believed that ‘cancer is an insistent opportunity to learn that in dying we are alive, in living we are dying.’

“She felt that a ‘good attitude’ is not about fighting, conquering, winning. It’s about the daily thankfulness. And about peace, not war.”

Professor Janette Vardy will join a Sydney Ideas panel discussion on Living Well with Cancer following the 27 March showing of A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

Dan Gaffney

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