Thursday, April 9, 2015
Go out on a limb with cancer
Maybe the fifth time I heard the commercial I finally snapped.
You probably have heard it too.
They play the damn thing enough.
In fact, I heard it again Thursday morning, waking up, as the radio turned on.
First cello music, sawing away—to convey class.
"Being diagnosed with cancer can be scary..." a voice says.
Whereupon I snarl, "No, being diagnosed with cancer IS scary!"
I should quickly add that this is not personal experience talking. I have not, as yet, been diagnosed with cancer. But I imagine when that diagnosis comes, it is universally a moment that can safely be described as "scary." I would be very surprised if there was a single person who, upon being told by a doctor that he or she has cancer, is not at least a little scared, even though they've made great strides with treatment, even though cancer is not the dread "c-word" of yore, even though people can and do recover all the time, with the help of top notch institutions like Rush University Medical Center, the organization behind the cello-drenched radio spot.
Still it's scary. It has to be scary. I would love to be proven wrong here, to have readers write in and say, "Why Neil, that's just your ignorance talking, I was told I had leukemia and I just yawned in that doctor's face because, really, like, no biggie, right? I wasn't scared. I was excited to be going on my cancer adventure!"
I've heard the commercial a dozen times, and invariably I start railing against the timidity of the thing, sometimes to my poor wife, sometimes to myself.
"Go out on a fucking limb," I'll say. "Say, 'Being diagnosed with cancer is scary'"
If you're reluctant to even mention how 99.9 percent of the patients are going to react to the news, then how the hell can claim you'll treat them properly? How can you work with them toward fighting their cancer if you can't even recognize how it makes them feel? Scared! Universally. And a lot.
Maybe, as a professional writer, I'm a freakishly small and hypercritical audience. Maybe I have an unusual hatred for safe, timid, squishy, bland, pabulumatic writing. It just so happens that the day I heard the commercial, once again, I also got a call from an editor in London working on a piece I've done for a medical web site there.
She was explaining why she wants to cut a certain scene in the story.
"It makes you look like an ass," she said.
"Well, I am an ass," I replied, defensively.
Be that as it may, she continued, and while your honesty is laudable, you don't want to manifest it to such a degree that the reader wonders why they're reading what this guy has to say.
Of course I agreed with her. That's one role of editors: to save you from yourself. In fact, I had flagged the passage for just such evaluation, because I knew I didn't come off in the best light. So what? You can go a lot of interesting places as a writer, I always say, if you don't care how you appear. People are so concerned about looking good—or covering their asses, as with Rush's "cancer can be scary" idiocy—they forget to communicate a powerful message.
And no, I'm not sharing the passage, though not because of any embarrassment—the cow has left the barn on that one—but simply because the article is still being edited. Who knows, maybe that scene will end up being put back. I'd like that.