I have lost three people to cancer, so it’s something that is always hanging around my consciousness – especially as two of them were my age. So anything that raises awareness in this area has to be a good thing – doesn’t it?
Have a look at this ad for the upcoming ‘Stand Up To Cancer’ fundraising event here in the UK in October:
Is this a good ad?
It depends how you look at it. It has already had millions of YouTube views, so it will surely achieve its primary aim, which is to promote this particular event. Taking proactive stance that avoids victimhood is definitely a good thing.
In the short term, it’s a winner.
However, long after the donations for this ‘killer night of fundraising’ have dried up, cancer will still be affecting all of us. The burgers that feature in the ad will continue to be a daily part of many people’s lives. And the alcohol. And the unnecessary stress. And the other lifestyle factors that make the difference for millions between a long life and one tragically cut off in its prime.
Here are my two objections to the Stand Up To Cancer ad:
1. The let’s-go-to-war-with-the-problem mentality. This attitude is rife these days. We have the war on AIDS, the war on poverty, another one on crime – and now you can even go to war on sugar. While such fighting talk is incredibly activating, and does a great job of fighting passivity and apathy, I believe it is doomed to failure. The world that throws up such problems is a very complex one. If you start talking about having a war on anything, you will surely get one. Of course you can argue that these problems are already pressing – and they are. However, by focusing on them, you risk putting yourself in a state of stress. Stress is a major factor in the development of all the modern-day diseases.
That’s no coincidence.
For someone facing cancer, focusing on it may be the right thing – I cannot comment, never having been in that situation. For someone wanting to increase their chances of avoiding it in the first place, the last thing they should focus on is a war on cancer.
2. My second objection is the science-will-save-us-all ending. It’s not you and me who protect ourselves against cancer – it’s the clever God-like scientist. The message is clear: our job is to raise money so someone else can find a cure for something that millions of people can prevent themselves.
We all know of someone who smoked 20 fags a day, drank red wine every night, then lived to be 100. Then there are people like my friend Kerry, who drank only in moderation, never smoked, was the right weight and enjoyed hiking in her free time. Cancer took her at the age of 41. I have done my fair share of raging at the universe over this fact – that you can do everything right, and still get taken by the big C. For future Kerrys, those men in white coats are life savers. They play an important role in this area.
The thing is that for every Kerry doing everything right, there are many more people who can stop cancer before it has even got started. How many people you know will die of entirely preventable cancers? Now ask yourself: how many people will whip themselves up into a frenzy of good intentions for one war-on-cancer event, then the very next day tuck into their junk food takeaway, while raising their stress levels at work before making some really good excuses not to take any exercise? How many people will be ruled by the invisible belief that their donation somehow makes up for the bottle of wine they drink three times a week?
The scientists have a role to play in reducing the impact of cancer. An aggressive stance may well empower some people in the short term. But these benefits are nothing compared to the massive transformation that could take place if people prioritised those lifestyle changes that can offer them an extra 20, 30 or 40 more years of life.
As an eating psychology coach, I know the prospect of eating more healthily is far less exciting than a ‘killer night of fundraising’. I know, being myself in successful recovery from compulsive eating, how profoundly difficult dietary changes can be. But I also know that these changes can be achieved – without going to war on anything. I see the hopelessness of temporary quick fixes such as fad diets, and I see that short termism reflected in this ad.
There is nothing wrong with an event that inspires you. The problem is that far too many people chronically overvalue such events, then go back to their unhealthy lifestyles without blinking.
These are the reasons that I won’t be standing up to cancer on October 17th. That implies a short-term burst of anti-cancer energy. To really protect ourselves from disease, what most of us need is long-term habit change. If you can do both – dive into the fundraising AND make those changes, then all power to you.