In The Emperor of All Maladies, his best-selling 2010 “biography of cancer,” Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the story of Fanny Rosenow, a breast cancer survivor who in the early 1950s wanted to place an ad in the New York Times for a breast cancer support group. Her query was routed to, of all people, the society-page editor, who expressed regrets. “The Times cannot publish the word breast or the word cancer in its pages,” the editor primly informed Ms. Rosenow, adding that perhaps the ad could be reworded to say “a meeting about diseases of the chest wall.”
We have, needless to say, come a long way in 60 years. Not only is cancer no longer a shameful secret, it’s the frequent subject of movies, TV shows, and comedy routines (collectively known as cancertainment). More to the point of this blog, “Fuck cancer” has become an embraced (if sometimes slightly censored) and widely monetized meme that’s seen in a popular hashtag, in the title of a recent Irish documentary, and in the names of three unrelated charitable organizations in North America.
From “the great unmentionable” (as Mukherjee puts it) to the greatest of four-letter words. How did it happen, and why?