Casablanca is one of my all time favorite movies. I especially like the scene where Captain Renault has to shut down Rick’s Cafe because the Nazis tell him to, and when Rick asks him why, he says “I’m SHOCKED! SHOCKED! to find that gambling is going on in here!” And then Rick’s assistant comes out with Renault’s gambling winnings.

I thought of that scene with the recent spate of celebrity cancer deaths. So many people I know expressed shock about David Bowe and Alan Rickman dying of cancer–and I think it was partly that they kept their diagnoses a secret, but I also think there’s something else going on there. I think a lot of people have bought into an idea sold by virtually every cancer center and most cancer charities: unrealistic cancer hope. 

You’ve probably seen the ads from MD Anderson or American Cancer Society or whatever cancer treatment center is in your area. Do any of them say “We’ll do our best to treat you but cancer kills 500,000 Americans every year and you might die no matter what we do”? Of course not. I mean, who would choose a hospital that says that? Nobody, apparently. So instead, they suggest that they’ll cure you, that they’re fighters who are tougher than cancer, that if you choose them for treatment, they’ll save your life. And that’s bullshit. They’re going to do their best to save your life, but a lot of cancers are incurable. 

And it’s not just cancer centers and charities–it’s the press too. We see all these stories of hope, that show cancer warriors valiantly fighting their disease and being cured. Where are the stories of the reality of life with incurable cancers? The endless treatment, the knowledge that you will die of your disease? The watching those valiant cancer warriors have metastatic recurrences and die? These stories don’t sell papers, and so there are too few of them out there. People like a happy ending. People like fairy tales.

So, the general public–those not living with a terminal diagnosis and those who don’t love someone with a terminal diagnosis–are left with the impression that cancer is no big deal. You fight it bravely and you win. That’s the story they’ve been shown, over and over again. And when they’re faced with the reality of what cancer actually does, they’re SHOCKED! SHOCKED! to learn that cancer can and does kill people–even rich people, even famous people.

I hate to keep harping on this, but cancer is a shitshow. The treatments are still practically medieval–slash, burn, poison–and even if you take the most aggressive treatment possible, your cancer may never be cured, as mine will never be cured. This should not be shocking news given how many people die of cancer every year. That it DOES shock people is evidence that the dominant narrative is a lie.