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I Am A Person, Not A Cancer: Trying To Change Attitudes Toward A Disease Many Can Now Live (Long) With

French authorities recently launched a campaign aimed not at the causes of cancer, but at one of its more debilitating effects: the social stigma that still persists.

I Am A Person, Not A Cancer: Trying To Change Attitudes Toward A Disease Many Can Now Live (Long) With
Delphine Chayet

Battling the disease is hard enough, but even in 2011 cancer patients still find themselves facing moments of embarrassment, close relatives who avoid them, and the fact that they have to fight to win back their positions at work.

Cancer is hardly an isolated problem. In France, one out of every two men and one out of every three women are likely to develop some type of cancer during their lifetime. Well aware both of the prevelancy of cancer and the stigma that tends to accompany it, the French Ministry of Health and the French National Cancer Institute have joined forces to launch a public-awareness campaign encouraging people to think more rationally about the disease.

When people are asked what cancer means to them, they usually come up with some very gloomy images. "Death, serious and pain are the first words that cross people's minds when they think about cancer," says Patrick Peretti-Watel, a sociologist at the Inserm (the National Institute of Health and Medical Research).

According to the Ministry of Health, about 70% of French people spontaneously say that cancer is the most serious disease, much more so than AIDS or heart failure. For that reason, according to the French National Cancer Institute: "People prefer not to think about it and not to talk about it. All the more so because 50% of the people polled say that they personally feel in danger."

Despite the advances in diagnosis and treatment, the gloomy misrepresentations have not changed much. Today, the five-year survival rate, for all cancer types, is higher than 50%. It reaches 80% for some cancer types. "Cancer-patients now live a more comfortable, longer life than before, and some of them are cured. But French people's mentality has not acknowledged these medical advances," says Nora Berra, a senior Health Ministry official.

The way people perceive cancer patients is a nuisance especially when recovering patients go back to work. According to a study published by the Institut Curie, 80% of patients found a job two years after they were diagnosed with a cancer. Rouhgly 27% of them even continued to work while they were being treated.

"But cancer patients must cope with a lot of negative things," epidemiologist Dr. Bernard Asselain notes. "They get tired more rapidly, especially women who had breast cancer. They cannot keep up the pace, but they would like to live like "they used to." The fear of having a relapse makes them very anxious. They are stressed out, they have sleeping disorders and sometimes they even suffer from depression."

The fact that their boss and their coworkers do not understand them is an additional obstacle. Indeed, some patients recover from the disease only to discover later that their careers have not. Roughly 20% of cancer patients report being denied promotions, or given less responsibility.

"Putting a lot into your work helps poeple move on, and lead a normal life again. It's vital," says Marie-Hélène, who was diagnosed with a uterine cancer at the end of 2009 that has gone into remission now. The 35-year-old management secretary from Rennes, who has a three-year-old child, was treated with chemotherapy and underwent two serious surgeries. After being on sick leave for one year, she has gone back to work full-time.

Christophe, 37, who was diagnosed with lymphoma, was on sick leave for three years, because he could not continue working as a warehouseman in a metallurgical company. "I missed my job so much. I felt like I was kept out of things," he says, adding that he did not tell his new employer that he had cancer.

These two recovering cancer patients agreed to pose for the public-awareness campaign. The latter is part of the 2009-2013 cancer plan, whose goal is to improve patients' quality of life. "I am a person, not a cancer," the posters read.

Read the original article in French.

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