Are individual breast cancer narratives just pink ribbons?

Personal breast cancer stories are one means of producing and maintaining ignorance about breast cancer.

(Segal, 2008, p.4)

I read an interesting article by Judy Z. Segal (2008) that argues that “ignorance about cancer is maintained, in part by the rehearsal of stories that have standard plots and features, and that suppress or displace other stories.” (p.3)

I find this an interesting argument. In the article she argues that the standard plotlines of stories silence the counter narratives. Anyone that has experience breast cancer, might tell you of the challenge of people telling you that you need to stay positive, eat a healthy diet, get exercise, or pray. As if not doing these things is what led to the cancer, or that not doing these things will cause the cancer to come back. That is the predominant narrative and one that some cancer patients need to fight in order to stay sane.

Much of what we are told about breast cancer is meant not simply to inform us, but also to evaluate and to govern us

Segal, 2008, p. 6)

I found that this quote spoke to me. It can be seen in some discussion forums – where only certain narratives are welcome. In some places, if you do not find god in your experience of breast cancer, then you are doing it wrong. In others it is about diet and exercise, or staying positive. These are all messages that often get propagated in certain online spaces but also through books about individual cancer experience. When you read pathographies (books about illness experience), they are all about the lessons of cancer. The plotlines are all about personal growth in one way or another. Does that not tell cancer patients and the wider world that cancer is a personal growth experience? That there is a right way to do cancer?

Personal narrative is itself a pink genre; it is so welcome in part because it is unthreatening – unlike, for example, the genre of the protest rally or the diatribe. Furthermore, it is an egocentric genre: it honours the individual and neglects the collective. (p. 17)

(Segal 2008, p.17)

I cannot help but wonder if the blog is a genre that breaks this argument. In book length memoires, you need a beginning, middle, and end. The story needs to have a plot that comes to some kind of completion, otherwise the reader is left hanging – and yet, I wonder if that feeling of being left hanging is actually more authentic. But do blogs help? Do they allow more for the protest rally or diatribe that Segal is arguing that personal narratives don’t provide? Does the genre of personal narrative through blog change the analysis of personal narrative as pink?

Illness narratives not only document and catalogue experience, they also reflect and reinscribe a hierarchy of values for such experience: humour is good; despair is bad; surviving is noble; dying, by implication, is not. (p. 13)

Did my blog propagate this narrative? Was my story yet another story that served to reinscribe the values that there is a right way to do cancer?

As readers of my blog, what do you think? Did my blog tell the standard plot/narrative, just in more detail than other tell it? Does the detail help break the standard narratives? Did you leave reading my blog thinking that there was a “right” way to do cancer?

Reference: Segal, J. Z. (2008). Breast Cancer Narratives as Public Rhetoric: Genre Itself and the Maintenance of Ignorance. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 3(1). doi:10.1558/lhs.v3i1.3

Feature image by Gwen Weustink on Unsplash

  • Becky

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