I could probably cite hundreds of articles and essays in which the idea of illness and death as a deserved punishment for sins either of omission or commission is expressed or subtly embedded. This happens to be the one I came across today, and she says it so well I want to repeat it here.
Cathy Seipp died Wednesday after a five year battle with lung cancer, at the age of 49. Apparently she was a devoted mom, a bit on the grouchy side, an unorthodox soul, and “the social, spiritual, and pugilistic core of the Los Angeles media scene.”
Her friend Susan Estrich eulogises her, including some of Cathy’s owns words concerning lung cancer:
“I’m beginning to feel a responsibility to point out that lung cancer, which kills more people annually (about 163,000) than the next four most common cancers (colon, breast, pancreatic and prostate) combined, is terribly underfunded compared to other diseases: $950 in research money per lung cancer death, compared to $8,800 for breast cancer and $34,000 for AIDS.
“That’s because the vast majority of lung cancer (about 85 percent) is still caused by smoking, even though the rate for lifelong nonsmoking women like me (and Christopher Reeve’s widow) has been going up for some mysterious reason, and the general attitude is that smokers deserve whatever they get.
“But half of all lung cancer patients have been nonsmokers by the time of diagnosis, sometimes for decades, like Warren Zevon. If they deserve to get sick, then I suppose so do people who are overweight or don’t exercise or who have promiscuous sex with strangers, all of which are contributing factors for various illnesses that get much more sympathy in the form of research dollars. Maybe the amount of attention we pay to a disease should have less to do with how many celebrities, magazine editors and junk bond kings carry its banner, and more with how many people actually die of it.”
Maybe it’s more complicated than that — for one thing, tax dollars spent on x are tax dollars not spent on y, which might be equally or more beneficial than x, and if we can prevent a disease rather than spend money to cure or treat it over and over, all the better for everyone, including the would-be patient — but at the core in our culture there is an element of blame, of just desserts, of some kind of justice done when a person becomes ill or dies because of what we think we can identify in our wisdom as bad choices, rather than simply an acknowledgment and sorrow that there are consequences that follow all our actions, including ones we make blindly, as children and teens, ignorantly, addictively, imitatively, thinking we are choosing a lesser evil over a greater one, and of course genetically, by being born to our parents.