Lance Armstrong, Manti Te'o and the way we ignore cancer
Who's saying what
It's been a strange week for cancer. Maybe particularly for sport and cancer, but definitely for cancer. Two very different sportsmen, Lance Armstrong and Manti T'eo, the decorated cyclist and the decorated college linebacker, have spent the week watching grand fictional edifices of their own construction come tumbling down around their ears. One used his own cancer as a shield against suspicion over his own cheating. One (it is alleged) used the cancer of a made-up girlfriend to fuel the media hype around his burgeoning career. Both used the mythology of cancer to further themselves, taking advantage of the still strange silence that obtains around this most feared of illnesses.
I've had cancer. Twice. Once at 11, once at 22. I'm not sure if there's such a thing as being an expert at having cancer, but perhaps in this field I could be considered decorated in my own way. My body certainly wears its scars like medals, a tangled constellation of dents and pocks and long white lines that stretches from neck to knee.
I think it's expected that I should be outraged by these unfolding fiascos, in the curious way that people who've had cancer are expected to share some common bond, some commonality of purpose. As if the one commonality of purpose we all share isn't simply the desperate drive to stay alive. Or, at the very least, to ward off death for a few more months.
But the mere fact of that grouping and the way it creates a simple mythology of the cancer patient goes to the heart of what the Armstrong-Te'o stories are actually about: the way people who don't have cancer engage, or rather don't engage with the topic as a whole. The way these exceedingly complicated life events are reduced down to a sequence of platitudes and cosy hero narratives that in their well-intentioned sentimentality become isolating and indifferent. I'm not outraged. I'm just all too aware of how easy it is to grip to these stories in an age where we no longer know what it means to die. And how we inevitably come to diminish those we place on pedestals.
Whether an international sportsperson or your best friend, these idols we create – fighters, battlers, inspirations all – are our balm because we're too uncomfortable to approach the base fact of cancer: that here is a disease that with almost mathematical precision places us somewhere along a borderland between life and death. What's your survival rate? 90%? 60%? 5? Assured by the miracles of modern medicine, we don't know how to cope with that seeming certitude. Death is no longer part of our shared language and now the walking dead live amongst us and that reminder of our shared mortality is almost too much to handle. So we litter the landscape of cancer with more heroes than a Tolkien novel and give them the task of waging this war alone.
In their vastly different ways, both Armstrong and Te'o relied upon our wilful blindness when it comes to cancer. Certainly, both played upon our model of the heroic survivor. Armstrong literally by overcoming his metastatic testicular cancer to become a figure we once rightly considered the apotheosis of physical achievement. Te'o in a more tangential but emotive fashion, by using the tragic death of his (non-existent) girlfriend from leukaemia as a prompt to ever greater feats of sporting prowess. Together they told us exactly what we wanted to believe.
The other thing the two shared was complicity in their fiction-making. We are so ready to see truth, so ready to fold the improbable into our collective understanding of the cancer "battle" that we ignored the signs – now so glaringly obvious – of these athletes' malfeasance. Surely the scale of the outrage now so broadly shared in some part stems from embarrassment that we were caught out for so long. That we were so willingly taken for a ride.
But who's going to investigate a cancer story? This is what we want to see: the good rising from the shit. Heroes overcoming adversity. People with cancer are untouchable. Find a tumour and you suddenly possess a moral stature that approaches sainthood. While I was ill the second time, my brother once said to me "You could probably kill a man right now and get away with it." Perhaps not that ludicrous, but it might be considered a mitigating factor. In the minds of the non-patient this is such an extreme event that it usually cannot be approached with anything except the most uncritical seriousness.
The headline 'Armstrong Comes Clean' clashes with the reality that such a sample would be quite tainted.— Liam Ryan (@liamoryan) January 18, 2013
Yet the reality is so much more prosaic and unadorned than all this would have you believe. For most of us life continues apace, just with the occasional trip to the hospital and a bout of public vomiting every now and again. A few of us start wearing bandanas or ill-advised hats. Many of us get better, some of us get worse. But the experiences are intensely individual and usually quiet. Rife with humour and sadness, as in all things. You adapt to a new set of conditions and that's that. Heroism is the last thing on our minds. Mostly we just want to be treated normally – to laugh about it and to be able to have a conversation with someone that isn't burdened with the possibility of loss and the supposed alienness of what we're going through.
Cancer patients supposedly show us the better parts of ourselves, the parts that come to the fore when all our plans and reassurances come to naught. That's what Lance Armstrong symbolised, and Manti Te'o told us was true. But this gives us too much credit and the rest of you not enough. I remember Pat Rafter once saying that his family's motto was "I am greater than no man, no man is greater than me". We possess no grand wisdom or virtue. Our suffering is not necessarily more than other peoples. It just is what it is: a shitty, shitty turn of events that we try to muddle our way through with the help of our friends. It's when we are forced to become heroes by those we rely on most that we lose begin to lose sight of who we once were.