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Q & A

1. Why did you write this book?

One day when I drove into the Stanford Hospital’s parking lot, I spotted a sign that said something like: “chemicals in this parking lots are known to the state of California to cause cancer…”  This was one of the only times on the treatment side of cancer that cause was acknowledged – and this acknowledgement seemed cursory rather than a real acknowledgement of the fact that cancer is being caused, all around us, all the time, and we are all implicated.

Despite the ways that cancer is being produced and lived and treated, cancer culture encourages us to see those with cancer as “brave survivors” engaged in epic, individual battles for their lives. I wrote the book because I wanted to better understand these paradoxes, ones I was seeing everywhere in cancer culture. Ultimately, I came to understand the ways that cancer is actually a central aspect of American economic, social, and political life. This fact is very difficult to see, because the languages we use to discuss cancer tend to frame it as a disease outside of our culture to be fought off, or as a disease we are in the midst of curing, or as a tragic exception to the natural life course rather than as a predictable result of the ways we understand and deal with our environments.  I wrote the book to better understand how this happens, and this limits our ability to see how cancer is caused and treated, and to provide a more accurate description of the role of cancer in American lives and cultures.

The second reason I wrote the book is that I was interested in how we have to turn to medicine to understand cancer. Cancer treatment, an event that nearly half of Americans will have to experience, is one of the most profound experience many of us will ever have to go through – and it is a central component of American lives and deaths. And yet, naturally enough, the languages we have to talk about it derive mostly from medicine.

Medicine is itself a complex, fraught, and highly political process which unfortunately does not have the answers to cancer.  It is its own sort of labyrinth with its own hierarchies and blind spots.

Cancer serves as place where big science and technology meet big unanswered questions with huge multi-billion dollar, life and death stakes. In this sense, cancer provides a unique opportunity to see how medical expertise is built, because so little is known about the disease.

The way we treat cancer, people with cancer, carcinogens, and pharmaceuticals is an American story- and provides an opportunity to see US culture from a unique vantage point.

In short - I wrote this book to give all of us who encounter cancer in the many ways we are forced to deal with it, critical tools to understand contradictions in medical and statistical worlds that people have to live in, and an analysis of the ways this reflects back on American culture and values.

AUTHOR Q & A  in progress