Created By: InsomniacWeasel on November 15, 2011 Last Edited By: InsomniacWeasel on December 4, 2011
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The Topic of Cancer

One disease is worse than the rest.

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"CANCER?! DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT A CANCER IS?! CANCER IS A SMALL PIECE OF DEATH THAT SLOWLY TAKES OVER A BODY!"
--Shouty Guy from Mondo Medicals explains cancer.

There are all manners of terrible diseases out there, deadly and incapacitating, annoying and disfiguring, and even a few truly horrifying fates worse than death.

But in the world of fiction (and according to popular belief, in real life as well), one disease stands tall and terrible above the rest- a disease so deadly, so silent, so inevitable, so evil, that it's very name has become synonymous with death. A disease who's mere mention provokes feelings of foreboding terror, disgust and paranoia in modern humans: the dreaded Malignant Neoplasm, or in layman's terms, Cancer.

There are countless types of cancer, but all share the same defining nature: in a cancer, the reproduction of cells goes out of control. Instead of dividing and multiplying in an orderly fashion, as they should, the cells multiply chaotically and violently without stopping, invading nearby parts of the body, and sometimes even spreading further through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Ideally, cells have several countermeasures against such a destructive chain reaction starting, many emergency fall-back mechanism meant to destroy the out of control cell before it can cause damage, but once in a while, those emergency killswitch mechanisms fail.

The causes of cancer are numerous, and can include anything from old age, to exposure to certain chemicals (such as the ones found in cigarette smoke), to exposure to great amounts of radiation (this association with the evils of nuclear power or weapons may be part of the reason for the fear of cancer underlying modern society's perception) to sheer bad luck. The truth is, that in the end, nobody can say for sure who will have cancer and when. Right now, your father may be developing cancer, or your girlfriend, or your dog. Even if they've never even went near Hiroshima or Chernobyl, even if they don't smoke, even if they live in a sterile bubble, they may still develop cancer. There is no way to tell for sure without checking, and even if they turn out not to have cancer right now, nothing can assure that they won't develop one tomorrow, or in three minutes.

It could happen to anyone, any time, and they would die a slow, excruciating death as their bodies destroy themselves from the inside because of a tiny programming error in the coding of a single cell that prevented it from ever hearing the order to "stop multiplying". There would be few symptoms in the beginning, all of them easy to miss, but towards the end Body Horror will hit in full force as the tumors, black and slimy or bloated and red would become visible over the skin. Or perhaps, they never will, and all you would see is the patient writhing in agony for days before finally finding release in death. Or they could just go out with a single seizure, out of the blue...

Even if the cancer is discovered and medical treatment is available, the fact that a cancer is essentially an out of control aspect of the living body means that the only way to treat it effectively is to kill the growing body. Chemotherapy for cancer involves intentionally poisoning a person just enough not to kill them, but to (hopefully) kill the tumors growing in them. The side effects are horrific: over the course of the long, long treatment, chemotherapy and radiotherapy will cast the patient down into the dark depths of the Uncanny Valley, causing them to slowly and painfully lose anything they had of the image of a healthy human being. Hair will fall, nails will break, fat will disappear. They will vomit, and they will wither, and they will cry silently as they are transformed into pale, skinny mockeries of the human form not by a disease, but by the cure, helplessly watching this cruel world from behind lifeless, sleepy eyes.

In it's core, a cancer is the perversion of the things we hold most sacred on the most fundamental level: reproduction, life, growth, fertility. The brightest and most wonderful things in nature twisted and mutated into something frightening, something repulsive and wrong by a mindless, faceless force that still somehow manages to seem outright malevolent. It is not surprising that just by mentioning the word "cancer", any instance biological horror may instantly become scarier, any scientific experiment more taboo, any associated magic or power evil.

Note that this trope isn't just for cases of cancer appearing in fiction: The Topic Of Cancer means that the word, term, or very concept of cancer is used specifically to evoke that semi-rational, paranoid terror and revulsion and creepiness that are associated with cancer, or with implications that cancer is somehow worse in some way than other diseases of conditions.
Community Feedback Replies: 25
  • November 15, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    Averted to hell (or is it played staight? It is supposed to be revulsive) in D&D Book of Vile Darkness - a Plague Master Prestige Class "cancer mage" gets a sentient tumor as a familiar.
  • November 15, 2011
    InsomniacWeasel
    I'd say that a sentient tumor familiar absolutely plays this straight, as the entire idea of the Cancer Mage is that cancer is something disgusting, creepy, and in this case actually, cosmically evil.
  • November 15, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    Used as Fate Worse Than Death in one version of Spider Man - It turns out Eddie Brock has cancer which, through hormonal imbalance, causes fits of rage, ruining his life. The symptoms also attract the symbiote to him. The symbiote wants to take over Peter but ends up attached to Brock and unable to switch hosts again. It has the power to stop the cancer from spreading but can't afford to cure it as it relies on it for food - this leaves Brock superpowered, angry and in constant pain - for the rest of his life.
  • November 15, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    Used for karmic justice (and the compulsory Body Horror) in Franken Fran - a rich villain hires Fran to extend her life and tries to get her killed to steal her research (fortunately, Fran is Ambiguously Undead and can live through decapitation). Fran returns to the villain's mansion and finds her Showing Off The New Body - the experimental formula allowed her teleomers to regenerate indefinitely, making her cells immortal... Just as the first side effects start to appear, Fran calmy explains that the only cells not programmed to die of old age are cancer cells. She then walks away, leaving her client "immortal" - as a gibbering pile of semi-liquid flesh.
  • November 15, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    A minor but very creepy Spider Man villain Styx was at one point called "living cancer" - he was a victim of Playing With Syringes trying to find a cancer cure by way of Acquired Poison Immunity - by exposing him to mutagens. Instead it gave him a power to make anything he touches wither and rot. The experience also twisted his mind - if his ability wasn't limited to reach, he would be an Omnicidal Maniac.
  • November 15, 2011
    wanderlustwarrior
    Good trope name, btw.
  • November 15, 2011
    StarryEyed
    The Littlest Cancer Patient attempts to invoke this for emotional torque, often unsuccessful.

    Sorry, but the description is way too long. I'm sure it's lots of good stuff, but it's a great big Wall Of Text that practically no one is actually going to read.
  • November 15, 2011
    SKJAM
    One Incredible Hulk story (probably an annual) had a wealthy cancer patient come up with a convoluted plan to get the Hulk's gamma-irradiated blood in the hopes that this would make his normal cells superpowered and able to overcome the cancer. Instead, the cancer cells were the ones that became super-powered, with nightmarish results. There was a callback to this years later when Hulk learned that one of his old friends was dying of AIDS and refused to donate his blood for fear something similar would happen.
  • November 15, 2011
    nitrokitty
    Interestingly enough, most cancers are benign, and many go away on their own without people even knowing. Often times this trope leads to unnecessary medical procedures to remove harmless tumors.
  • November 15, 2011
    InsomniacWeasel
    You probably mean benign tumors, not "benign cancers". There isn't such a thing as a "benign cancer". By their very definition they are malignant. Every cancer is a tumor, but not every tumor is a cancer. And while some benign tumors are indeed harmless (or are more dangerous to try to remove than they are by themselves, as is the case with many brain tumors), even none-cancerous ones can still be dangerous.
  • November 16, 2011
    lamoxlamae
    I like the description. It may be long, but there is no way to possibly mix up what it means. It also would be a Self Demonstrating Article if left like this!

    • The story "Metastasis" by Dan Simmons is built heavily around this trope. Apparently cancer is caused by a parasitic race that uses humans as breeding grounds. In effect each tumor is actually a larvae that devours humans from the inside as it reproduces wildly until there is nothing left. The parents then come back and devour their offspring for nourishment occasionally leaving one or two to germinate into an adult.
    • Anti-Tobacco ads like to point out that tobacco use causes all sorts of horrible cancers as an effort to stop people from using Tobacco. Sometimes this comes with graphic images of cancer-ridden cadavers pulled from now dead smokers and/or actual dying cancer patients.
  • November 16, 2011
    Arivne
    Tabletop RPG
    • Call Of Cthulhu supplement The Asylum and Other Tales, adventure "The Asylum". One of the drugs Dr. Freygan uses to create proto-shoggoths is called Cellular Accelerator. It can heal wounds quickly, but there's a chance it will cause cancer throughout the recipient's body. The victim will be reduced to a mass of suppurating flesh within 2-12 days and die 1-3 days later.
    • Amber Diceless Role Playing. If characters with Shape Shifting push themselves beyond their limits while suffering from exhaustion or starvation, they can suffer from Primal Chaos Cancer. Some of their cells run wild, consuming normal cells and multiplying quickly. The rogue cells will eventually attack vital organs, appear on the skin and eat the character alive, turning him into an amorphous blob.
  • November 16, 2011
    InsomniacWeasel
    Then there are the Carcinoma, which is what you get when Zeka tries to make more of themselves and fail horribly: hideous monstrosities made completely out of cancer, with an alien, incomprehensible, malignant intelligence.
  • November 16, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    The older YKTTW is still there - just search YKTT Ws for "cancer". You can move the examples from there here.
  • November 16, 2011
    Rytex
    Harry Potter gives us Spattergroit, which ends up getting exploited by the Weasley family to explain Ron's absence from Hogwarts, when in reality, he isn't really there, but rather a ghoul, charmed to look like he's got it. No one will come close enough to investigate, because the disease is incredibly contagious.
  • November 16, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    this one doesn't fit. Avoiding close inspection by "looking contagious" is a good idea for a separate trope though.
  • November 16, 2011
    InsomniacWeasel
    • Scully almost died of alien-induced cancer in The X Files. Other abductees were not as lucky.
    • In medical tv shows, Scrubs for example, while cancer -is- often shown to be horrible, other types of diseases can be shown to be just as bad at times.
    • The creepy biological macguffin from Oni, the Chrysalis, is repeatedly described as being like cancer.
    • Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen is extremely distraught to discover that the radiation emitted by his physical avatar gave his friends cancer. [[spoiler: This has actually been a ploy by Ozymandias,who gave them cancer himself
    • Tuf Voyaging has a "cancer creature/living tumor" example in the "Meatbeast" that Haviland Tuf proposes as a temporary solution to {{S'uthlam's}} overpopulation induced food shortage.
    • An episode of Arthur had the school's lunchlady reveal that she had cancer. Significant, I think, in that a kids' show addressed it so openly.
    • One extremely Darker And Edgier alternate universe story for Marvel had Bruce Banner transform into a cancerous Blob Monster instead of a green hulk.
    (All the relevant examples from the previous YKTTW plus a couple new ones)

  • November 16, 2011
    DaibhidC
    The inversion is The Disease That Shall Not Be Named, where the work avoids saying cancer because it's so horrifying.
  • November 16, 2011
    InsomniacWeasel
    The disease that shall not be named refers specifically to cancer, though? I thought it was about any really bad disease.
  • November 17, 2011
    randomsurfer
    @SKJAM: the Hulk story wasn't an annual. It was right after Secret Wars, just before Hulk became mindless.

  • November 17, 2011
    Irrisia
    Inevitable Homestuck example: Karkat (who uses the trolltag carcinoGeneticist) admits to John he may have given John's universe cancer.
  • November 17, 2011
    LuxExterior
    Wow, there are tons of examples of this.

    For Film:
    • A bit of an oddball example is in Tommy Wiseau's The Room, wherein the Love Interest's mom flat-out states that she has terminal breast cancer during one scene. This is promptly forgotten and never mentioned again.

    For Live-Action TV:
    • The series Breaking Bad revolves around the protagonist, Walter White, discovering during the pilot that he has terminal lung cancer. It is this discovery that kick-starts the action of the show.
    • An early monologue by Bruce McCullough on The Kids In The Hall had him apologizing to everyone for "causing all of that cancer". He says he did it because he "didn't realize it was such a horrifying disease" and he was "just on a roll".
  • November 17, 2011
    DaibhidC
    @Insomniac Weasel: It's not about any really bad disease, but ones that are seen as so horrible that you just don't talk about them; smallpox is one of the nastiest diseases out there, but for some reason (perhaps that it was the first disease we got a vaccine for) it's never been The Disease That Shall Not Be Named. And the second para begins "Cancer is a special case."

    I did originally write "the inversion is The Disease That Shall Not Be Named, when the disease that isn't named is cancer", but then I thought it looked a bit Department Of Redundancy Department.
  • November 18, 2011
    InsomniacWeasel
    • Here's a drinking game to play while reading "Hunchback The Lurching", a fan gameline for the World Of Darkness: take a shot whenever the Hump is described as "Cancerous", "Malignant" or "Tumorous". Just don't blame me when you lose your liver.

    • Elizabeta from the manga Gunslinger Girl was a young Russian ballerina who developed bone cancer in her teenage years because she spent a period of her childhood in an area of the Ukraine that was heavily affected by the Chernobyl incident. Due to the generally primitive state of public healthcare in ex-USSR areas, the cancer is not contained properly and by the time Elizabeta arrives in Italy for further treatment, the doctors decide that the best bet would be to amputate her leg before the cancer spreads. Realizing that she will never be able to dance again, Elizabeta tries to kill herself (it's not a very happy manga). This is remarkable because of all the other girls' backstories, this one is the second most detailed (by far) and the most often referenced (usually by people expressing pity over the poor, poor girl with the cancer), while the stories of girls who were nearly murdered, mutilated by car accidents, raped or born with horrific disfigurements get barely a line. The only story that gets more screen time than Elizabeta's is of the girl who was used as a living prop in snuff porn films.
  • November 18, 2011
    donald
    • Discussed in the South Park episode Tonsil Trouble. Of course they have to bring it Up To Eleven by having activists claim that just having AIDS is way better than having cancer.
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