Two fingers to the big cancer charities who urge us to ‘wage war’ on a lonely and personal illness


I FEEL like sticking my fingers up to ‘Stand up to Cancer’, so increasingly overwhelmed and irritated am I by some of the viral and advertising cancer campaigns that inundate our daily lives.

I didn’t think I’d ever jump on the Jenny Diski ‘don’t call me brave’ bandwagon. I thought it didn’t matter how others perceived you or the way you lived through cancer. That’s up to them, I thought.

However, the pigeonholing of people with cancer as universal footsoldiers in the eye of an horrific conflict is pretty unrelenting. Targeted marketing on social networking means that as soon as there’s a whiff of cancer about you, your timeline is dotted with ads and rallying cries from cancer organisations urging you to fight cancer. And there are SO many organisations that it’s hard to make sense of what they all actually do, other than encourage us to part with our money. And it isn’t just online: you can’t walk out of the door or turn on the TV without being confronted with an advert, poster, or message about some aspect of the condition.

Advertisers (and friends and family, of course) are extremely keen to see you conquer the disease, and to battle on, showing how brave, inspirational, or indomitable you are. Sometimes it can feel as if it is your duty to deal with this feared enemy in a suitable way. A way that, perhaps, encourages others to feel that they would do the same in your shoes.

Most importantly, you should strive to be among the percentage which conquers cancer and goes on to live a long and cancer-free life. If, on the other hand, you are unsuccessful, it’s important that you exit this life at peace after your brief or lengthy contest with the Mighty Demon Cancer. It’s a big responsibility alongside feeling like shit!

Cancer, of course, is not simply one illness. It’s a multitude of illnesses linked by the fact that they all involve mutating cells in some form or other. No one wants to develop cancer but the reality is that currently one in two people are likely to suffer cancer of some description. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose it might be you. Obviously, I hope it isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, our family has experienced many blessings through cancer (and cancer is a shared family experience), including feeling more close-knit, communicating more openly with one another and meeting some fab people. Personally, I relish each new day in a way that I hadn’t realised I didn’t do before. But, overall, having cancer and being treated for it isn’t much fun.

So, endless images and conversations that present you and your illness in a way that you do not perceive yourself is wearying. At the end of the day, you have no choice about being someone with cancer. It’s part of life and you find the best way to live with it and through it. Of course, it helps having people cheering and praying and encouraging from the sidelines – the support and care of all those around you is thrillingly life-enhancing. And, of course, those who have life-threatening or life-shortening illnesses are wise to remember how difficult it can be for others to express their support – being seriously ill can make you a bit touchy!

During my operation and subsequent chemotherapy for bowel cancer there was a particular advert on TV that at first grated and then just got me down. It was a man who shivered alone in an icy black and white wilderness, unaware of the people around him. Then a nurse from the particular charity joined him and everything became full colour and he was not so alonel.

I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that annoyed or upset me about the ad (although the fact that my 14-year-old felt he had to leave the room every time it came on will certainly have been a factor). To be honest, it might just have been that it was there!

Having cancer is a lonely experience: the realisation of its impact on your life and on the lives of friends and family isolates you in an inaccessible way. Thoughts of cancer run like a constant tickertape across your mind. Whether cleaning your teeth, reading a book, or just chatting and telling someone how ‘fine’ you are: it’s always there, in the way I imagine tinnitus to be a constant and wearisome companion.

Perhaps the ads and campaigns, such as the recent viral Facebook tic which urges that you turn your profile photo monochrome as a symbol of solidarity against cancer, are simply too in-your-face for those who have (or have had) cancer.

So I do have sympathy with the woman who was so incensed by the black-and-white-profile campaign that she took a selfie in a mirror (defiantly bare-breasted and nipple-less) while flicking a V sign, to underscore her disgust at the simplistic and lazy idea that de-colouring your profile picture will somehow show solidarity with those who have cancer or, even less likely,, do something to help or support them.

Personally, I have no desire to reveal my cancer scar, although I acknowledge that many find it cathartic. I also acknowledge that there are campaigns raising awareness of particular cancers, encouraging people to get themselves checked out, offering support services and raising funds to find better treatments and so on. But I do think that marketeers have got rather carried away with themselves.

This morning it was Cancer Research that got up my nose with the following ad on my Facebook timeline:

Stand Up To Cancer UK
For too long, cancer’s been playing dirty. It’s been going after kids, targeting grannies. . . and even taking cheap-shots at our breasts and testicles. It’s time to rebel against cancer.

What does this even mean? I can’t believe that personifying cancer is useful in any way, shape or form. I don’t see cancer as ‘playing dirty’ and I don’t see myself as a ‘rebel against cancer’.

Have these money-raising campaigns lost sight of why they are doing this? Have they forgotten about the people with cancer? Are they focused, instead, on an idealised picture of having cancer? Or have they become carried away with the sheer joy of being able to pop out to run a marathon, climb a mountain and fly along a zipwire with the satisfaction of getting yourself sponsored for ‘a good cause’ for doing it?
I often wonder just how much these big organisations spend on communications and advertisements. How much sponsorship never arrives at the charitable destination of choice? And I think: that’s it.

All the adjectives and hyperbole seem to me a bedspread under which the process of breeding money has become a self-flagellating, dirty secret. Cancer fundraising is increasingly all about itself rather than about the reality of the people who are dealing with cancer, whether they be medics, researchers, care workers, patients or their families. Whilst I applaud the idea of raising money to support good causes (and medical ones) on a large scale, I believe big charities need a reality check, time out to revisit their purpose and ethos.

Cars on the quayside: the fleet used in Berwick to ferry cancer patients on the hundred-mile round trip for hospital visits. Below, some of the Berwick volunteers who help their neighbours with a lonely, frightening illness.
Cars on the quayside: the fleet used in Berwick to ferry cancer patients on the hundred-mile round trip for hospital visits. Below, some of the Berwick volunteers who help their neighbours with a lonely, frightening illness.

imageIt is on the local level that cancer support charities meet tangible needs at source. Where I live, Berwick Cancer Cars (Berwick and District Cancer Support) ferry people the 100-mile round-trip to Newcastle-based hospitals. For someone undergoing radiotherapy, that’s a daily journey, often for six weeks or so. HospiceCare North Northumberland provides free support to patients, carers and families – and care in their own homes for those who wish to die at home. This is the up-close-and-personal end of serious illness.

I’m not saying we don’t need research, and organisations with a macro, nationwide and global view. I am saying that such organisations need to ensure that what they are doing is about real things and real people, and NOT just about raising money for the sake of it.


  1. Very poignant and totally true. I couldn’t agree more with all your comments. I’m afraid the blurb is written by people who have no clue what it is like to have cancer. They seem to have an idealistic idea that us “fighting” will rid us of it (if only)
    Putting money into more specific research might help!

  2. Well said Jax.

    What gets me are the Belgravia and Mayfair head quarters buildings, oh! And the salaries for the “National Head of Fundraising”, how often one of the London elite, most of which would fund the Berwick and District Cancer Support Group for a year.

    Pay big money “to get the right people” How come they all come up with the same ad agency campaigns, the same, just two pounds a month messages, et al.

  3. Thank you, that was well said!!
    My now 9 year-old daughter who lost her mum to cancer at age 6 did NOT appreciate the poster saying ‘Cancer is the the loneliest place in the world’.
    And, hell yes, let’s stop this brave battle talk: makes it seem that those who don’t beat it weren’t brave enough.

  4. Thanks for saying it the way it is Jackie. I truly believe that there are lots of people who feel a deep sense of unease watching the latest campaigns from the major cancer charities (or for that matter, charities in general). The voice of experience is always the loudest voice in the room and I hope that your message spreads far and wide. Sadly, cancer is big business and provides endless opportunities for our most cynical opportunists. I’m so happy to hear that local support is good. Did you ever read ‘Small is beautiful’ (E. F. Schumacher.)? Such a good read and and excellent explanation as to why we should give mainstream business/media/charities the cold shoulder.

  5. Well written… have a very readable style (pretty sure I have said that before).
    Every time I see the tv adverts about cancer I too think of the money that could be spent on research or care for the price of the ad! And I also wonder why there are so many different Cancer charities. If they got together, pooled their costs and resources, then the money raised would surely go further….

  6. Sorry I only discovered this article so long after publication. I agree with it entirely. During my own experience of watching several people close to me die of cancer, I came to hate the whole cancer fundraising industry. These people make a good living out of playing on our fears and as for the celebs who jump on the selfie etc bandwagons, they are just cynically raising their own profile. Now that the Oxfam scandal has broken, it is channelling a great deal of accumulated resentment of charities, and I don’t think the charity culture in the UK will ever be the same. By the way our Macmillan nurse told me that most of their funding actually comes from the NHS. Which is how it should be, but their fundraisers won’t tell you that!

  7. Thank you so much for writing this and for expressing so well that cancer is an intensely personal journey which shouldn’t be reduced to the language of simplistic – and simply wrong -advertising slogans.


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