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"How cancer becomes us": A conversation with author and anthropologist Lochlann Jain

Associate Professor of Anthropology S. Lochlann Jain's new book weaves her research with memoir and aims to start a new conversation about cancer as a cultural, not just medical, phenomenon.I asked Stanford anthropologist Lochlann Jain, PhD, author of "Malignant: How Cancer Become Us," why, when there are thousands of books on the market about cancer, we needed another one. She agreed there are many. There are superb histories, interesting and excellent memoirs, and penetrating looks at the environmental causes of cancer out there, but, she said, "what we're missing is an analysis of how cancer is such a large part of America’s political, social and economic life.”

When we first met over coffee to talk about the book, I asked Jain how she  would define cancer, having been a member of its club. “It complicated,” she replied. “I didn’t expect to write about cancer. I just thought I’d get this treatment over with and go back to my work. But then I realized, the whole experience was just so full of paradox, I couldn’t just let it go.”

And paradoxes she does write about: We fight it, yet we produce it. Science, medicine, economics and policy are often at odds with each other. As she told me:

Each of America’s iconic industries – agriculture, oil and gas, cosmetics, plastics, pesticides, tobacco, medicine, construction, military – has undoubtedly led to tens of millions of cancer deaths. The unique way in which cancer presents, decades after exposure, makes it central to the growth of both the industries and the illness, in short to the existence of the United States, as we know it.

She also talked to me about the blame and shame game that accompanies a diagnosis of cancer. She brings clarity to the issue of why victims of cancer are dropped into a torturous inner debate of shoulds and coulds and woulds.

I was completely riveted by our conversation. "Malignant" is an extraordinarily original piece of writing that takes a microscopic lens to the complex and confounding world of cancer. I hope you'll find my 1:2:1 podcast with her of value. In my mind, Jain adds a truly unique voice to the literature of cancer.

Previously: Stanford professor dispels “too young for cancer” myth
Photo by L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

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