The Selfie Cancer

Have you taken your make-up free selfie yet? Or are you rolling your eyes at the very thought? The split between the two camps is pretty much 50:50 on my Facebook wall.

Let me start with this. I am terrified of cancer. There are few diseases that frighten me. As a biologist, and with a family that comes in the medical flavour variety, I tend to view disease with more fascination than fear. But this obsession with the mechanics of the body breaks down when I’m confronted with the C word.

It’s not that I have bad experiences with cancer. The worst thing cancer has done to me is present a few non-malign tumours in close family members, which causes a few months of unease until the offending lump is excised. A grandfather died of an unknown primary tumour, a quick decline after a surprise diagnosis. And a grandmother who died of cancer before too many memories of her formed. Family lore says her radiation badge from her days working as a nurse in radiology was too often blackened, and that she ignored the signs for too long. I’ve been told we have the same hair.

But it still frightens me. Is it the chaotic nature of the disease? Cells which divide forever, heedless of the proper order of the body? Yes, I am a bit of a control freak. Is it the way it lurks? The lumps and bumps that might seem normal. Is it that, despite being shown by a nurse and looking at the diagrams, I’m still very unclear on whether I’m doing a breast exam right? Is it the vestigial cultural taboo of the C word?

But as a scientist, cancer holds other problems for me. If you forced me to give you my contribution to the world’s scientific knowledge I’d tell you I enhanced our understanding of how personality affects animal behaviour. Anonymous internet commenters have asked me why I didn’t spend my time curing cancer instead.

Build a Large Hadron Collider – why didn’t you spend that money curing cancer?

Define our theory of physics – why don’t you use that time to cure cancer?

Launch a telescope into space – shouldn’t you be curing cancer?

Work in cancer research – shouldn’t you be curing cancer faster?

I’m sure most of my fellow scientists will have had this accusation levelled at them once or twice. Never mind that markets don’t work like this, that scientific progress requires more than one discipline of study. Never mind that I’d be useless in a lab because my natural talents lie towards the empathy and big-picture-view that make me a good ethologist. Why don’t we all go cure cancer right now?

Here I direct you to another wonderful science communicator: Jorge Cham. As the creator of PhDComics.com he has plenty to say on the experience of being a scientist. When he visited a cancer centre he had to ask: why were they listening to him and not off curing cancer?

Please do visit that link. It’s one of the most informative links I’ll ever point you towards. To call this monster simply ‘Cancer’ provides a smoke screen that disguises the true problem. There are many, many cancers and there are many, many hurdles on the way to curing, or even treating, those many, many cancers.

This brings us to the selfie trend. Take a photo of yourself without makeup to raise awareness of cancer. The Telegraph reports the trend has already raised a million pounds. The Independent editorialises the death of vanity. And Closer magazine thinks we’re all missing the point (they helpfully tell me the point is to donate money).

It’s always easy to criticise. I’ll start my criticisms by saying this no-make up selfie bandwagon sensationalises women who choose not to wear make up. It is somehow ‘brave’ to appear as you do when you wake up in the morning. I have apparently been subjected to ‘horror’ if I’m to believe the self deprecatory captions on each selfie.

This is perhaps what offends me the most about this whole trend. I’m an avid selfie taker and I wear make up perhaps once a month. Last weekend I posted about five make-up free selfies in the course of a football match. Is this horrendous to you? Am I brave? No, I am not.

Because I am afraid of cancer.

And this is why the selfie craze is brave, just not quite in the way people might think. It’s not brave because you contravene some ridiculous preconception of beauty. It’s brave precisely because you frighten me. You remind me there is a terrifying disease out there. Stephanie Boyce is brave for reminding me that the disease is survivable.

The bravery is the same bravery that prompts people to stand on the street collecting money for cancer research. It’s an irritant. They know I don’t want to hear about it, they know I don’t want to confront the fear today, but still they ask for money.

When we talk about a ‘cancer awareness’ campaign it may seem like we’re implying there are people out there who are somehow unaware of our plague. Nobody is unaware of cancer. But there is still a desire to sweep the disease under the rug. It is so big, so complex and so terrifying that it’s easier to think that if all scientists simply put their heads together we’d have it kicked in a week.

It bothers me that your make-up less face is worthy of comment. It bothers me that we picked this method of getting people talking. But it bothers me that cancer is still so prevalent.

What’s the bigger evil? The disease, or being reminded that it exists?

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One thought on “The Selfie Cancer

  1. Interesting post, my own view is that it is obviously not ‘brave’ to take a pic of yourself with no make up, however it was the perfect accidental marketing tool (easy, visual, using social media) to get people thinking about self examination, sharing cancer stories (some of which are positive) and discussing the subject many people fear. It also raised a significant amount of money, which helps us to keep chipping away at the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Yes, there are many kinds of cancer and yes, they are almost all multi-faceted and yes, it can look like the hydra. But, the fight so far has improved survival rates for many cancers and some are now treated and lived with as another kind of chronic illness. Treatments are becoming more targetted, some attacking the blood supply to tumours, some blocking receptors, and so on. Big Pharma is changing. The days of the Blockbuster drug are over (when one drug would become used so widely that it basically sustained the company, eg statins). Manufacturers are now developing very precise weapons designed to attack specific processes, no less valuable to society although fewer people will have need of them. I want to talk about development costs and NICE/The SMC here but there isn’t space and I don’t want to go too far off topic. There will never be A cure for cancer, but there are and will be many treatments and improved means of diagnosis to allow us to fight the many forms it takes.
    If a few selfies and lots of noise as a result of them helps one person to spot symptoms a few weeks earlier, or helps a little in developing one of those treatments, I’m in.

    Like

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