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Vol. 11 No. 2: April issue

Pluralising Cancer

August 28, 2023


This Review essay seeks to interrogate the vast category of ‘cancer’. Taken together, the three books explored here pluralise cancer, locating it not just in organs and bodies but also in time and space—in the social, material, and historical specificities in which people become patients. These ethnographies break apart the notion of ‘the C word’, showing the diverse experiences and illnesses that are gathered under this banner. Cancers emerge as both unavoidably fatal and potentially controllable in different settings. At points, however, these anthropological texts may also reinforce the unity of a singular cancer. This essay suggests that clarity may be gained by more explicitly treating this notion as an object of their ethnography, historicising and theorising it. Wholeheartedly interrogating what is variously meant by the word cancer may have benefits, not only for improving the precision of anthropological work, but also for addressing the widespread fear that the term and its fairly uniform associations with suffering and death inspire.