When my friend was struggling with her mother’s new diagnosis, she listened to the popular French song about cancer entitled, “Quand c’est?” It gave her a sense of support, empathy, and solidarity with others.
Last week, a friend sent me a link to a song titled “Quand c’est?” a French song about cancer by popular Belgian artist, Stromae. “It feels real, now,” my friend said. Her mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The music video opens with Stromae standing in front of a bright white backdrop, the only source of light in the hauntingly empty theater. His hands crawl up upward, his body structure switches from that of a stable human into a misaligned, fearful being. From the top right corner, a slender creature with insectile legs appears, trying to pick at Stromae’s contorted body. As he fends for himself, he confronts the creature, accusing it of preying on his parents and little children, questioning whether it remembers its history of destruction. In the chorus, “cancer, cancer . . .” echoes faintly throughout the encounter. “Cancer” sounds similar to the French “quand c’est,” which means “when it is?” Not if, but when. When will cancer finally prevail?
The view of the theater pans out to show a web-like trail covering the audience seats, with no other living human in sight. Now, it was Stromae’s turn. With one final attack, the creature wins, and Stromae becomes yet another addition to the creature’s metastatic web of lifeless silhouettes.
Does cancer have to look like this? Dark, hopeless, predatory . . . surely, not all forms of cancer, and not all illness experiences, are so devastating. Yet this ominous depiction of cancer seems to resonate with many people. Cultural references to cancer continue to present it as an inescapable, catastrophic disease. Although breakthroughs in cancer treatment have changed outcomes in many ways, for some patients, the weight and experience of a cancer diagnosis may remain as grim as it was decades ago.
This song is a reminder that despite the many differences in cancer presentation, the word itself continues to be associated with a significant amount of grief. On one hand, such an artistic interpretation of cancer may contribute further to the generalization of cancer as a singular, tragic disease. On the other hand, it helps people process and reflect on their own interactions with cancer and may give viewers a sense of support, empathy, and solidarity.
I wonder if clinicians can help transform the public perception of cancer. Perhaps with the right messaging, we may help decrease patient fear and anxiety surrounding a cancer diagnosis– messaging that serves to answer questions of “when?” as accurately as possible, while also acknowledging that each individual journey with cancer is different and unique.
It’s no secret that the healthcare system often struggles to communicate necessary health news. “On cigarette packages, ‘smoking kills’–what a surprise!” As Stromae suggests, futile messaging may only add to patient frustration and anxiety. The illness experience with cancer is diverse, and there is certainly room for nuance in how we communicate the realities of cancer to the public.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.