About two weeks ago, the Hospital for Sick Children, also known as SickKids, launched their new ad campaign. For those who aren’t from Canada, SickKids is based in Toronto, Ontario, is the second largest children’s hospital in the world, and does some truly amazing and inspiring work. I highly recommend watching the ad, as the messaging and production quality is absolutely amazing. The imagery and symbolism is strong, and shows these children as fighters who will vanquish their foes. It shares more in common in terms of tone and imagery with NBA and NFL commercials than typical hospital advertisements.
I have mixed feelings on this ad campaign. On the one hand, it is meant to provide a strong, motivational message to children undergoing treatment, and to help raise funds for the SickKids Foundation. In this, it is wildly successful, with an ad that has been viewed almost half a million times (as of this writing), and one that has sparked lots of discussion. However, while the ad is motivational and empowering, it is not without fault.
Last week, I was at Health Quality Ontario’s annual conference, Health Quality Transformation. The keynote speaker was David Giuliano, a patient advocate, who has been undergoing cancer treatment for 20+ years. His speech touched on many aspects of his treatment, but one aspect that resonated with me was his dislike of the idea that he was “fighting” his cancer. While we’ve covered this topic on the blog before, he approached this from a much more spiritual angle. As he said here:
“I hate this whole battle metaphor. If I read one more obituary – ‘Lost his valiant battle with cancer…” That means everyone who dies of cancer dies a loser. I recognize that cancer is part of my body. To battle it is to be in a battle with myself.” (he also discusses it about 15 minutes into the video above)
This is where things get incredibly complex. Sometimes people may want to fight, and lash out against their disease – and in that respect the SickKids ad is great. But what if they don’t? One concern with a campaign and language aimed around “fighting” is that it robs people of their ability to experience the full range of emotions associated with not just their condition, but with the human experience. What if someone just wants to admit that they’re struggling, and needs your support through that? These campaigns show them as fighters, but you can’t fight day in, day out. Even professional athletes take rest days to allow themselves time to physically and mentally recover from the gruelling work they’re been through, and those in the 9-5 world have weekends for that same purpose.
This leads into an important point about the “fighting” metaphor, and that is the privilege afforded to certain diseases. Some diseases can be “fought,” and people with these diseases have the support of research dollars, as well as society behind them. Cancer is one example, with charity runs, bake sales, awareness campaigns all focused on “fighting cancer.” But what about chronic diseases? What about mental illnesses? Do they also get an “army” behind them to help them battle their illness? There is a very large segment of the population for whom this metaphor doesn’t work. Fighting works well when there is an enemy that must be overcome, or a short term, acute issue that you can tackle. However, the metaphor and imagery doesn’t work when you will be living with a disease for your entire life, and in some cases, no amount of fighting will help you. So how do we support individuals with those diseases?
I have to confess; I don’t know a better metaphor for dealing with a disease that could replace “fighting” in our lexicon. I’ve heard several other options, and the one that stands out is the “black dog.” This is the idea that your illness is there with you constantly, as a companion rather than a driver of who you are and your behaviours. Some days it’ll be a good companion, and others days it will not be. That metaphor may work for some; others will find the fighting metaphor more powerful and effective. Others may not need a metaphor, and for them they are their ailment and their ailment is them, and the two are synonymous with each other. The one-size-fits-all approach we currently have robs people of their individuality, and forces them to confirm to how we believe they should be acting, rather than the other way around. It is not our job as a society to decide how someone gets to experience their illness. This is their choice and our job is to support them in whatever way they want, whenever they want, acknowledging the full spectrum of human emotions.