Taking Cancer Out of the Closet and Into Viewers’ Living Rooms

The first in an exclusive series by Eric T. Rosenthal

Several years ago, an oncology social worker with CANCERCare told me that during the early days of the organization’s existence (it was established in 1944), social workers would be hesitant to utter the word “cancer.” Instead, phones would be answered, “Community Care,” and very often social workers were dispatched to see patients who were unaware that they had cancer.

Keeping cancer in the closet may seem somewhat hypocritical for an organization with the mission of providing help and hope to people affected by cancer, but it was also a reflection of the incredible fear that surrounded the disease in the early 20th Century.

Cancer as a concept embedded within the psyches of the public has always transcended the disease itself, and Merriam-Webster’s second definition: “something bad or dangerous that causes other bad things to happen,” reinforces the word’s dark and foreboding nature.

In more than a quarter century of observing the culture of cancer as both a correspondent and communicator, I’ve witnessed important advances in cancer research, treatment, and prevention, and an increasing acceptance of the condition as something more than a death sentence. As just one indicator, the terminology and mentality of survivor has firmly supplanted words like “victim.”

Over the years, various cancer advocacy, educational, and awareness campaigns—including the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s (EIF) Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) —have helped reduce much of the stigma associated with the condition. However, there has been no more powerful symbol of hope than the millions of cancer survivors living with the disease today and enjoying a good quality of life.

Late producer, and SU2C cofounder, Laura Ziskin read Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer while undergoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer. A comprehensive, yet fully understandable, history of the disease, Ziskin urged EIF to obtain the television and film rights to Mukherjee’s book, which they successfully did. After years of work, Dr. Mukherjee’s words will finally be brought to the screen on March 30th by iconic filmmaker Ken Burns and director Barak Goodman. Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies is a three-part, six-hour documentary that will air on PBS stations across the country on March 30th, April 1st and April 2nd.

Together with the outreach and educational efforts that have been undertaken by WETA and EIF (including cancerfilms.org), there is a great expectation that – in the words of EIF Senior Vice President Tom Chiodo – “On April 2nd millions more Americans will be talking about cancer, and the conversation will be different than it is today.”


Eric T. Rosenthal is special correspondent with MedPage Today. He also serves as the journalist member of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies Education Subcommittee.

tags: , ,