Cancer is, quite possibly, one of greatest tragedies of the human condition. There aren’t words to describe the horror of watching a loved one waste away as the malignant cells multiply—so I won’t try. People try to make sense of it in all different ways, some saying it made them stronger or brought them closer to their friends and family. As true as these claims might be, no amount of closeness nor personal strength will ever come close to the complete despair the disease leaves in its wake.
There is no upside to cancer.
Unless you’re Oankali,
The Oankali are an alien species from Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy. The Oankali have a unique ability to manipulate and ‘trade’ DNA with other species. They find cancer to be particularly valuable and by incorporating it into their DNA they give themselves the ability to transform. This idea of cancer as something valuable is something we came back to more than once in class, it is something that is difficult to even really fathom.
From a disability studies perspective, there appears to be something inspiring about this idea. By taking something, a disease no less, into something desirable it shows that there is value in disability. That despite otherness, despite limitations, it is valuable.
That is not Lilith’s response to finding out what the Oankali have done with her cancer. She is disgusted and her response isn’t wrong. Cancer is a point of deep tragedy and fear for Lilith—telling her it is something good not only minimizes her pain but shouts over her voice.
Reframing cancer as valuable plays into the common differently abled narrative.
This is not a good thing.
The phrase differently abled was coined to be kind, but it is anything but. By using the phrase differently abled you are actually furthering the idea that disabled is bad. Disabled is not an insult, it’s not a dirty word. It is as valid as any other cultural identifier. By calling someone differently abled you are diminishing their struggles and experiences, reinforcing the idea that there is one correct way to be human, and ignoring the interplay between bodies and culture—which only in combination make disability. Although this may seem like a small thing, it actually reinforces the oppression of disabled people.
The conversation surrounding disability is relatively recent and Butler could not have been aware of this particular conversation. I am not implying that she was in any way attempting to fortify oppressive beliefs. It would be entirely unfair to hold her to a standard that hadn’t been defined yet, particularly when I am sure that is the last thing she would have wanted. Still, I think it is important to acknowledge the potential problems with representation.