An illness story

I’m fascinated by this story of cancer treatment and death because, well, I love crazy alternative therapy stories and I love reading sick lady stories. Specifically, I’m fascinated by how women’s tales of illness are almost like advice stories–they show you how to behave correctly, on every occasion, and how to be a “winner,” even if you die. (Poor Susan Sontag, she utterly failed to stop people from using metaphors to talk about illness. Especially the violent ones!)

A quick rundown of the story: Jess Ainscough was diagnosed with a rare cancer, epithelioid sarcoma, at age 22. The cancer was located in her arm. Instead of undergoing the usual therapy–amputation–Ainscough decided to start Gerson therapy, which involves a bunch of supplements, juices, and coffee enemas. She seems to have blamed her pre-diagnosis lifestyle for her illness–she partied and ate frozen food–and thought that by changing her behavior, she could reverse the cancer. She lived for seven years after diagnosis, and started a wellness blog that seems to have disappeared entirely after her death, but was popular in her native Australia during her life.

Some blogs criticized Ainscough for flinging woo at her followers, saying that her treatment cured her cancer when it didn’t help her at all. I tend to agree with her view, although I can’t say for sure if undergoing conventional treatment would have lengthened her lifespan; it seems as if leaving the cancer untreated led to a particularly painful end, at the very least. Then again, with the recommended course, she would have been a living amputee, with a permanent mark of treatment on her body, and not the “radiant” creature that recently passed away.

And Ainscough was radiant, at least in what is left of her online presence (pictures, mostly; her own words seem to have been erased). She’s described by her followers as so happy and so positive. And that seems to be the important thing, being happy and being good, not being alive. Like I said, I’ve read a lot these stories, and almost all of them prescribe chirpy self-improvement and food restrictions–the same things that women are supposed to do when they don’t have cancer. Apparently doing these things even harder can cure cancer (well, not really, but enough women want to believe that they can cure cancer). And even women undergoing conventional treatment tend to recommend the same things–smiles and dieting and forgiving your enemies, and so on. It’s not a cure, but it can’t hurt, right?*

I don’t know exactly what the link between this happiness and light and cancer treatment is, even though I’ve worked on it, and I’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich and other writers on the subject. I know it’s there, but I can’t articulate it as precisely as I’d like. Maybe there are just too many connections. Perhaps it’s a way to normalize a dreadful disease, make it just another way to self-improvement. Cancer becomes the same as cellulite or acne, something you can read about and work to improve, and just like you’re responsible for doing your own makeup and toning your own thighs, you’re responsible for killing your own cancer cells. If you eat right, exercise, and generally keep yourself looking good, you can “thrive” even if you have a threatening or  incurable illness. All of this “thriving” involves camouflage–hiding body parts with shawls, covering up bald heads with wigs, smearing makeup over one’s face to hide pallor or flushes. All the normal tricks of womanhood, only done with lives on the line.

It’s all that trickery that fascinates and frightens me. I’m probably scared that I’m not a good enough woman when I’m well, and it’s all going to be too much for lazy me when, barring car crashes and gunmen, I inevitably get sick. I’m going to be physically decrepit and emotionally wrecked, and then I’m going to have to put on makeup every damn day and drink dreadful green juice to have the nice, glowing skin I never even had when well. And then what if I die! Probably with my wig crooked and lipstick on my teeth. And in my last moments, I’ll be in a state of utter existential dread, and then I’ll see those offenses against femininity and it will just be too much and I’ll expire of lady regret. Primary cause of death: lazy womanhood.

Of course, that’s flippant. I do remember an encounter with a woman who wasn’t thin and beautiful, who looked sick. Years and years ago, a neighbor was seriously ill with cancer, and I knocked on her family’s door to sell her Girl Scout cookies. She answered the door, to my surprise—I guess I thought that she had already keeled over—and declined to buy, saying that she was trying to eat more healthy foods. Her appearance startled me. She was so thin, and you never saw someone that old and thin in real life, only young models—and I was mystified by her refusal. With my 12-year-old wisdom, I thought, You have only a bit longer to live, eat whatever you want! Looking back, I wonder about her motives. Was she trying to recover, and did it matter if she was? Was she living life to the full by taking care of herself, forgoing “evil” food, or was she denying herself the joy of experience? Does it really matter? Maybe she just hated those cookies. I shouldn’t ascribe motives that weren’t there, even though I naturally do.

I do wonder if looking good is a duty, though, so as not to frighten silly little Girl Scouts or neighbors or loved ones or, most importantly in the United States, employers. How much does it matter? Will I have to find out one day?

* When did positive thinking become a cure, anyhow? People in 19th-century literature seemed to die more often if they were saintly young females with lots of faith and hope, but then again there was that Victorian Heaven to send them to. I may also be confusing Little Women with actual 19th-century medical experience.



  1. Have you read the latest scandal about Belle Gibson, another young Australian woman, who claimed to have cured herself of a range of cancers via a healthy-living program that she then turned into a business- and now, it seems, she was a fraud. And the money that she said she was giving to charity from her earnings doesn’t seem to be there. It’s an extraordinary story.


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