When the Saints (And Celebs) Go Marching In…

Secular religion. This is the term that Hank Stuever, staff writer for the Washington Post, uses to describe cancer in the United States. His article – ‘Stand Up to Cancer’ telethon brings out the stars but feels contrived – centers on a celebrity fund-raising and awareness telethon that was broadcast live and uninterrupted on September 10th. Co-hosted by World News anchor Diane Sawyer and evening news anchors Katie Couric and Brian Williams, the SU2C telethon boasts a huge cast of celebrity actors, musicians, comedians, athletes, and political figures who are joining up with scientists and researchers in “a bold new endeavor” to “find real solutions” and “stand up” to cancer.

Cancer is a major preoccupation in the U.S., but is it really a secular religion? If the telethon is any indication, then yes, I’d say it is. A secular religion is authoritative, ideological, conduct coded, beyond dispute, and has designated enemies. Cancer fits the bill.

If the telethon is any indication, then yes, I’d say it is. A secular religion is authoritative, ideological, conduct coded, beyond dispute, and has designated enemies. Cancer fits the bill.

The name of the telethon, Stand Up To Cancer, sets a clear directive that defines the enemy and the confrontation. In standing up we defy that big bully, cancer. Celebrities such as Sophia Vergara, Lance Armstrong, and Michael Douglas reiterate that cancer, habitually cruel to unsuspecting and innocent people, doesn’t care who we are, what we’ve accomplished, or what our dreams are.

Few would disagree that cancer affects all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. The diversity of faces in the SU2C tableau engenders connection, empathy, enthusiasm, and synchronized effort. What’s more, since cancer doesn’t care, we have to.

George Clooney, with deep sincerity in his voice, tells viewers, “We, the lucky ones, can stand up for the not so lucky.” The religious undertones–support the weak, help the suffering, honor all people–are a sure way to tap into existing doctrine without necessarily saying so. It’s a good idea anyway, the haves reaching out to the have-nots–humanely, ethically, civically, and if you like, religiously. Of course, the entertainment industry that produced this fund-raising and awareness spectacular has specific ways it wants you to help: “Stand up and donate…so cancer loses, and we all win.”

The ritualized conduct of the telethon further lends itself to sacralization. Traditionally, a fife and drum and some Yankee Doodle would accompany our sacred battles, but the pop culture version gives us Lady Antebellum, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Martina McBride, the Edge from U2, and more. What’s not to like? We can sing along and tap our feet to the inspiring rhythms of a cancer-fighting extravaganza. And, there’s really nothing wrong with that. But in the midst of songs, tributes, testimonials, cancer facts, comedy, photo opportunities, and celebrity phone banks, the telethon raises money by focusing attention to the imaginary–the dream of a cure. In the secular religion of

And there’s really nothing wrong with that. But in the midst of songs, tributes, testimonials, cancer facts, comedy, photo opportunities, and celebrity phone banks, the telethon raises money by focusing attention to the imaginary–the dream of a cure.

In the secular religion of cancer, the dream world fuels the religion and draws attention away from the consequences of our collective actions.

First, let’s be clear, the dream is to cure (read: treat) the cancers we have and, if current trends continue, the cancers we will keep on getting. The dream is to fund the cancer-fighting super-heroes who, we hope, will swoop in and save us should our own sling-shots fail to kill the beast. Cure is what the dream teams of scientists, doctors, and researchers are supposed to promise and what telethon celebrities suggest when they tell viewers that they want to “make everyone diagnosed a survivor…like [them].”

The telethon may be new and bold like Brian Williams says it is, but we’ve been dreaming this dream for forty years now, hoping it would eventually materialize, and promising each other over and over again that now, we’re closer than ever. The dream sustains us, encouraging us to keep tuning in and adding to the collection plate even in the midst of a recession.

And then, every morning we wake up and there is still no cure for cancer. Some people are cancer free for awhile, perhaps even the rest of their lives. But for many of the diagnosed, this is not the case and too many suffer from the lingering side effects of treatments that diminish their quality of life.

To Dream An Impossible Dream

There is no magic bullet for cancer. So maybe the dream teams are dreaming the impossible. Numerous researchers and cancer groups have already shifted their focus away from cures and toward primary prevention ( i.e., figuring out how to create internal and external environments that are hostile to cancer.) Unfortunately, the financial incentives in the cancer industry keep treatment and clinical experimentation in the foreground with the dream of that cure. This is not to say that individuals within the industry lack good intentions. The machine has a way of taking on a life of its own.

Numerous researchers and cancer groups have already shifted their focus away from cures and toward primary prevention ( i.e., figuring out how to create internal and external environments that are hostile to cancer.) Unfortunately, the financial incentives in the cancer industry keep the dream alive to maintain the role of treatment and clinical experimentation. This is not to say that individuals within the industry lack good intentions. Just that the machine has a way of taking on a life of its own.

Moreover, by keeping cancer in the dream world the fight against cancer also takes place in the imaginary.

We “stand up” against cancer using our collective imagination, often with the flair of a Broadway musical. We get to be part of the audience and enjoy a common story line and a familiar cast of characters, such as the latest girlfriend’s guide to cancer or this year’s version of the Stand Up To Cancer telethon.

Opportunities abound to be part of the performance too, in a fund-raising event or some other cancer-fighting affair. Encouraging real people to participate in the spectacle adds to the emotional connection and authenticity.

There are plentiful chances to give money and get souvenirs (e.g., t-shirts, key chains, necklaces, buttons, ribbons, magnets.) These contribute financially to the cause while commemorating the experience, all to remind us that we did our part.

[Even as I write this, an Ad for SU2C scrolls through my iTunes display.]

Pomp and Circumstance

The SU2C telethon, with its “pop-cultural and commercially inspired fixations” (to use Stuever’s pointed words), is a meticulously choreographed production of pompousness, melodrama, and marketing. It is the perfect mix of solemnity and cheerfulness, has a mission with which no one disagrees. It boasts fund-raising and awareness with fanfare while monetizing caring as the last shared civic value: the dream of a cure coupled with the ego boost associated with fighting the good fight.

In the midst of the festivities, the only people who are in the trenches, so to speak, are the ones who are living with a life-threatening form of cancer. These are the people who are literally fighting for their lives and suffering the consequences of biological warfare, imposed in part by the disease and in part by the medical system that treats it. For those of us who have cared for people with cancer, witnessed their treatment, and maybe even watched them die, the reality of cancer is not lost on us. We hope for miracles too. And in that hope, we might even sing a song for the cause.

Hank Stuever captured the essence of the war on cancer when he wrote:

“That’s the thing about cancer in America: It is sacrosanct. Getting it, fighting it, coming back from the brink of it and even dying of it — these are the sacramental rites of cancer, America’s secular religion.”

Religion has its place in society and in the lives of individuals who choose to practice it. But with the cancer industry in such a powerful position vis-à-vis advocacy and the medical system, sacralizing the cancer effort with commerce and pop culture is much easier than creating a world that is hostile to cancer.

That would require fundamental changes in how society functions, including strong environmental protections, removal of toxic chemicals from everyday merchandise, significant reductions in petroleum-based products, health care for all, clean food, and potable water. It’s easier to phone in my offering to Cindy Crawford and keep on dreaming.

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4 comments to When the Saints (And Celebs) Go Marching In…

  • ann

    FOOD for deep thought! There are so many people affected by cancer and many want to help or give back. What else can people do besides take part in the commercial and celebrated things?

  • Gayle – this is such an illuminating post and drives home so many excellent points on so many levels. Standing behind colored ribbons and all the hoopla and pageantry that goes with it has trained the average person to think that this is how we “fight” breast cancer and all the other dreadful afflictions in the world, and that this is enough. The “cure” is held up as the holy grail that the warriors in the fight must continue to strive for at all costs, all the while ignoring, and dare I say marginalizing any real attempts to understand the role that our environment plays in causing cancers to occur in the first place.

    It reminds me of an article I read in the New York Times last year (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/health/research/28cancer.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=cancer%20research&st=cse). It was about the cancer research grant system and how studies that result in “incremental progress” (read: short time line and result in another annuity for the cancer drug companies) are more likely to be funded than those studies deemed to be more uncertain, and invariably focussed on environmental causes and prevention (read: long time frame and no annuity for the cancer drug companies).

    As you rightly point out, unless there is a complete shift in mindset in the way that we as a society view the fight against cancer we cannot move forward in any meaningful way and cancer will continue to be the plague of our time.

  • Thanks for writing, and the article you remind us of points out such a crucial issue. Incremental progress is exactly what the National Breast Cancer Coalition is coming out against with the new 2020 cancer deadline initiative!

  • Such a good point. That’s the good news about all of the commercialization. People know about cancer, and it’s clear that they want to do something to help. Now, we just need to redirect what we do to align with programs and efforts that are focusing on the bigger picture. I’ll point to some of these in the coming months.

To speak her truth, she needed to give her words and identity away, to a trusted poet and friend @stevedavenport breastcancerconsortium.net/ov…

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