August 10, 2015 / Theology
How this year’s Oscar-winning best picture can teach us about our selfhood and search for meaning.
January 14, 2016
The magnet read, “I’m making cancer my Bitch.” It was one of the small trinkets in the cancer-survivor corner of the hospital gift shop: a cartoon sketch of a white, winking woman with bouffant hair and a plastered smile under 1950s twinkle typography. Beside bagged candy teddy bears, you could buy the magnet in the color scheme of your cancer. Gray for brain, light blue for prostate, pink for breast, and so on.
But what does it mean to make cancer your bitch? Colloquially, we seem to use bitch as an epithet for the unruly, for those objects or persons who are out of place, that frustrate. “Bitch” is what we name that something or someone we cannot make submit to our perceived sense of power. I find this phrase to encapsulate our psychosocial relationship with cancer in the United States: we seek to dominate cancer, to put this invasive thing in its place, to destroy it. But cancer does not develop from a germ or an outside source. Cancer forms from our body’s own cells. To make cancer our bitch thus means that we do not simply seek to exercise dominance over it but that we seek to exercise dominance from within. To make cancer my bitch means that I have understood my body as violated and in need of correction.
The Rise of Cancer Research
In the postwar 1950s, the United States was gung ho for hygienic habits and policies. The American Medical Association spent decades and millions of dollars to promote hygiene in response to the deplorable living and working conditions and high mortality rates of early twentieth-century cities. Public policy and research preached the message of cleanliness, and nearly everyone was a convert. Ladies’ magazines of the period provide a snapshot into this achievement: full-page ads promoted cleaning products that were guaranteed to ensure not only the health of “her” family but also her happiness.
Good Housekeeping had a regular one-page column entitled “Keeping Up with Medicine,” snugly fit between advertisements on best refrigeration practices and proper infant nutrition. Its articles sought to keep women abreast of the latest medical advances—advances that could help them continue to protect the health and wellness of their home. As the 1950s churned on, articles about tumors and cancerous cells began to appear in spades. More and more magazines devoted lengthy articles explaining how cancers form, cutting-edge treatments, and scientific preventions. Popular media outlets, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, scrupulously published these research updates. Life magazine offered regular articles on the subject, devoting two issues of its magazine in short succession to discuss cancer.
These publications sought to make the public scientifically literate, but they are most notable today for the ways in which they employ militarized language of battle, war, and survival. The pull quotes in these articles jump out at readers with such phrasing as “science forges stupendous arsenal of weapons,” “bigger, bolder counterblows,” and “the best weapons we have.” This rhetoric signaled the United States’ anxiety over its inability to ensure the boundaries of good health.
In the postwar period, Americans worked hard to make their bodies and homes the harbingers of health. However, the cells that form cancer could not be scrubbed away with military metaphors and soap. At its most elementary level, cancer exists as a set of diseases classified by their abnormal cell growth. Due to mutations, these cells are unable to live or die properly; they become capable of spreading and multiplying at will within the bodies in which they are formed. Cancer exists as the body’s betrayal of itself at the cellular level, not as some hygienic failure.
To speak of cancer in terms of a battle allows us to avoid the grief that our bodies stand vulnerable. In the last year, multiple studies have surfaced that speak specifically about the unique and harmful language of current cancer treatment. Medical professionals who work with cancer patients, for example, use words like battle, fight, and attack much more commonly than with other patient populations.
These metaphors are not accidental; rather, they exist as the remnants of chemotherapy’s historic roots. Although cancer treatments are certainly not matchless in their problematic social histories, chemotherapy presents a provocative case in the story of modern medicine. On December 2, 1943, in the midst of World War II, an American ship was anchored outside Bari, Italy, with 100 tons of mustard gas on board. An unexpected German air raid shelled the ship and released a plume of gas into the air. The gas moved across the harbor, killing almost a thousand Bari residents. The US media reported the event as an “incident” to mitigate blame; meanwhile, US government officials secretly sent coroners to Bari to better understand the gas’s effect on its victims. The coroners’ autopsies revealed that the gas destroyed the victims’ white blood cells and bone marrow. American medical scientists then used these findings to study how science might harness the power of chemical warfare for therapeutic purposes. As the New York Times reported during World War I, “Dying people, as a rule, have something to do besides the invention of epigrams.” Wartime incidents are never wasted—mustard gas was added to the military’s growing volume of advances in military medicine, as the wartime tragedy in Bari brought new waves of medical advancement, particularly in the realm of cancer research.
Public service posters funded by the National Cancer Association during the 1950s promoted a militarist connection with chemotherapy treatment. Promulgating the United States’ ability to fight cancer on both the communal and individual level, these posters often depicted a sword pointing ever upward to represent the battle at hand. A few posters portrayed a statue resembling Lady Liberty wielding a sword named Victory and buttressed by the commanding phrase, “Fight cancer with knowledge” and an instruction on how to enlist today. The honor of fighting for one’s country now held distinct biological valences. Americans must protect their bodies, both abroad and at home. The capricious nature of both cancer and war outcomes rattled the nation’s ability to ensure the safety of American bodies both on the front lines and on US soil. The discovery and use of chemotherapy drugs mirrored the paradox of cancer, a disease in which our own bodies turn on us. The administration of this poison pushed its patients even further up against the veil of death; chemotherapy forced a bone-deep reckoning of human vulnerability within its patients. It is no wonder, then, that cancer-related awareness campaigns capitalized on the virulent language of battle. For a patient to face a disease with a tool of chemical warfare as his or her main hope requires an immense amount of courage.
However, in attempting to affirm a patient’s strength, the language of battle and war can only speak to science’s futile ability to conquer the body’s vulnerability. According to our present grammar, the body’s mortality functions as an inexcusable deficiency. Our rhetoric separates the person’s will to live from the body being targeted by the medicine, asserting a form of body/mind dualism. This denies us the ability to affirm the strange and confusing gift that is human vulnerability.
Julian of Norwich
Here, I think Julian of Norwich can teach us about the complexities of the sick body. A fourteenth-century mystic, Julian lived and prayed as an anchoress; her body built, as it were, into the walls of the church. Julian had two visions, both when she was very sick and near death. Within these visions, I find a Julian whose encounter with her own body’s limitation presents us with a theological framework to understand the perils of infusing battle rhetoric into a person’s bodily experience with illness. Julian’s work reveals that medicine’s desire to resist death can only intern condemnation upon the body that will one day succumb to its weakness.
Julian’s body is contaminated with an illness that brings her near death. Before Julian’s first vision, she calls the priest to administer her last rites. As she lies there, staring up at the crucifix he is holding over her, her vision forms. In this vision, Julian’s body and the love of God exist in tension. Sickness, or suffering, represents a form of martyrdom for the flesh—she suffers so she can know Christ’s suffering, so she can learn how to overcome her body. She longs to be enraptured fully in the love of Christ, but she feels her body shackled, both by the uncleanliness of illness and by the legacy of a theological discourse that demands her to rise above her body, to master herself. This is particularly true within the feudal economy, she writes, in which one’s ability to work and produce for the feudal lord defines one’s worth.
The sick body cannot work or at least not in the ways that are easily recognizable. The sick body cannot master itself. Sick bodies are an economic and social liability. Not only could Julian’s body not work—and thus be productive in larger society—but in an era ruled by the plague, her illness could risk the health, the hygiene, and productivity of the larger community. Thus, Julian’s inability to dominate and control her weakness dismissed and named her body as “burden.” Jesus’s salvation only exists, she notes, because he suffered and overcame this suffering, and she understands her suffering as the only way in which she can participate in the knowledge of God. Julian spiritualizes her suffering as that which may bring her closer to God and witness to God’s love in suffering. She writes, “Any spirit had life in Christ’s flesh, so long suffered He pain.” Nevertheless, on her deathbed, self-mastery does not present itself as an option for Julian’s body. To try to master her body would only produce a paradox. Julian could not lay claim to or assign value to her body. In Julian’s first vision, her pain gives her body value because her pain ties her to Christ’s suffering. Her body is given meaning not in its life, but in its suffering and death.
After this first vision, Julian recovers and then, upon falling ill again, she has a second vision. In this vision, Julian’s understanding moves away from suffering as that which defines God’s love and her body’s worth. Julian first assumes that the sorrows of life are the experiences humanity merits according to their sin, but in her second vision, Julian comes to understand her body’s weakness not as a divine suffering but as a mournful part of human experience. She allows herself to feel the limits of her skin and the weight of her bones. She understands that the body does not deserve illness. Instead, she sees that illness reveals the vulnerability of the body that existed in the garden and always reveals its need of God’s love, a love that does not fear bodily illness and goop. “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it for it was not shown to me,” Julian writes. “But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.” This time Julian’s revelation does not come to her by rising above her body. Instead, through pressing into the vivified experience of living, she finds her body and mind enlivened with the never-ending, unsanitized love of Christ.
Julian experiences her soul expanding both in and outside her body. When she speaks of the soul, Julian means the medium through which she experiences God, but this does not mean that she believes the soul and the body are separate entities. She writes in a painful beauty, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.” The soul, for Julian, is the means to which a person clings desperately to the goodness of God. In this clinging Julian finds that her life, as a soul-filled, bodily creature upon this earth, eludes naming and understanding. This present life mingles together the sorrow of sin and the compassion of Jesus to form those experiences that are “[sometimes] good and easy, and sometimes hard and grievous.” Through this love Julian’s illness becomes a space in which she can concurrently mourn and embrace her vulnerability. The love of Christ affirms that her body was made good.
The Words of Our Mouth
At my small Mennonite church here in North Carolina, when the preacher of the week gets up to speak, she begins with a prayer adapted from the Psalms: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be pleasing to you, oh God” (19:14). Our theological task, then, is to find a way of speaking of suffering that takes to heart this formative medication—to press back against a medicalized construction of the body.
That magnet in the hospital gift shop tells me that medicine cannot merely sanitize bodily vulnerability—human vulnerability—like germs from our hands. We aren’t called to wash away knowing someone with a disease or feeling firsthand the physical presence of illness. How do we speak of sick bodies in a way that acknowledges the terror of human vulnerability and finds hope in the kind of body which God too indwelled? What are those words that speak to the paradox of illness being both natural and horrendous?
Finding new words and ways of talking will require that we carefully listen to those who know sickness all too well. To speak meaningfully about the sick body will require tender theological reflection and pastoral care. Perhaps in this learning, we will find with Julian how to love our bodies as God loves them, in sickness and health.
 Melissa Stone, “The American Medical Association Campaigns against Health Insurance Legislation in the 1950s and the 2000s: Fear vs. Compassion—UMHM,” Humanities in Medicine, University of Miami, March 14, 2012, http://umhm.mededu.miami.edu/?p=394.
 See.Home Economics Archive, http://dlxs2.library.cornell.edu, http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=hearth;idno=6417403_1413_001, and
 Gerald Piel, “Cancer Research Will Ultimately Find New Cures,” Life, April 21, 1947, 77–84; and “Speaking of Picture: Impish Antics of Cartoons Characters Explain How Cancer Weapons Work,” Life, December 6, 1954, 10–11.
 Like a cliché moment from a horror film, cancer is the call that comes from inside the house.
 David J. Hauser and Norbert Schwarz, “The War on Prevention: Bellicose Cancer Metaphors Hurt (Some) Prevention Intentions,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, no. 1 (2015): 66–77.
 See Siddharha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (New York, NY: Scribner, 2010).
 It is difficult to determine whether Julian read or knew of Cur Deus Homo. However, she most certainly would have been familiar with Anselm’s prayers, which held the same central pronouncements made in Cur Deus Homo. Anselm’s theology, and in this case, his Christology, would have already encapsulated Julian’s theological formation as a nun. In seeking a reasonable explanation for why God became human, Anselm postulated that we, humanity, owe God a debt of honor that must be satisfied by way of our bodies.
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (n.p.: Waxkeep, 2013), loc. 461–62 (Kindle edition). Again, this is alluding to an Anselmian logic that Christ saves humanity only in suffering, not in life. Julian undermines this in her second vision when she finds that Christ’s love—a love for which he suffered—is the key to salvation.
 Ibid., loc. 1117–18.
 Ibid., loc. 197–98 and loc. 1110; also, see loc. 85 for Julian’s description of the soul.
 I am grateful to Danny Arnold, Julie Morris, Ashleigh Elser, Kara Slade, and Michelle Wolff who helped turn a head full of thoughts and pages of ramblings into something readable through challenging conversations and numerous edits. Also, thank you to the TOJ editing team for the stellar patience and aid in helping me continue to craft this piece.
Kate Roberts holds an MDiv from Duke University and is a candidate for an MSW from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She, her partner, and pup, Olive, live in Durham, North Carolina.