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Thread: Qualms about using cancer as a subplot

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Qualms about using cancer as a subplot

    Okay, so my dilemma is this. I'll simplify as much as I can but could really use advice.

    My WIP is a YA fantasy. (Contemporary fantasy? Urban fantasy? I don't know.) Healing is one of the powers people can have in this world, but all the powers are somewhat limited. One girl (a secondary MC) has considerably more power than others. It turns out that the headmistress of her school is sick. (She has to be seriously ill, it doesn't necessarily have to be cancer.) This girl is healing her on the reg, but she can only keep it at bay, not get rid of it.

    Then later, it turns out another character's mother has cancer (or the same thing the headmistress ends up having) and that causes some problems/moral dilemmas when he finds out this girl can heal at that level.


    SO the problem I have is: I am worried about using a serious disease (that has been handled very thoughtfully by other people) as a throwaway plot device, but the people who have it are not the main characters. One does not appear in the book and the other is the villain. This isn't really a story that can address the struggles of being ill, though the character whose mother gets sick will deal with some like "how far would you go to help your family" stuff.

    Do you have problems with the situation as described above? Do you think it's insensitive or should be tweaked in any way? For the story to work the headmistress has to be sick, somehow. (I have also thought about it being a thing where she's really old, and is using this girl's magic to keep her body from breaking down).

    Any help you could offer would be greatly appreciated.

    Sorry for being longwinded, and thanks.

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW
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    Personally, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but if you're worried about it, why not make up a disease? Since it's a fantasy novel, it would be especially believable...

  3. #3
    The moving hand, having writ... AW Moderator Maryn's Avatar
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    That's exactly what I was going to say. (How does melindamusil get into my brain?) It's a fantasy, so you get to make up diseases with their own collections of symptoms, or assign them new names so the real thing is not recognizable.

    For a fantasy, I'd especially enjoy the made-up names similar to kennel cough, childbed fever, milkleg, summer complaint, that sort of thing, made to match the symptoms which best serve your plot.

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  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW
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    I think cancer has become the go-to disease for many writers, just as Alzheimer's has. So for me it's not so much that it appears insensitive as that it's overused. I don't think there's any harm in making characters ill just so the protag can demonstrate her powers. But if you're finding it problematic, that may affect the writing.

  5. #5
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    I'm with Buffysquirrel. Cancer is so ubiquitous. I'd suggest doing some research and finding something more unusual.

  6. #6
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    !

    Cancer is pretty overused.

    You might find this list useful.
    Susan

    Please visit my website: http://www.susanlittlefield.blogspot.com/


  7. #7
    Retired Illuminatus dangerousbill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Susan Littlefield View Post
    !

    Cancer is pretty overused.

    You might find this list useful.
    If I were a hypochondriac, this list would be pure gold.

    On the other hand, both my parents died of diseases from the very back chapters of the internal medicine textbook.
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  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    I don't see a problem with using cancer. In fact, it's one of those things that doesn't seem to show up a whole lot in fantasy.

  9. #9
    Travel biologist, piss-poor fluffer quicklime's Avatar
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    cancer kills what, 1 in 4? So it isn't exactly unheard of, and folks deal with all things in all manners....unless it was a ridiculously ham-fisted plot device (and making a disease up wouldn't help that...) I don't see cancer being a problem
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  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Susan Littlefield View Post
    !

    Cancer is pretty overused.

    You might find this list useful.
    Wow, that list looks worse for a hypochondriac than watching a marathon of House.

  11. #11
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    Thumbs up

    Quote Originally Posted by rwm4768 View Post
    Wow, that list looks worse for a hypochondriac than watching a marathon of House.
    I love House!
    Susan

    Please visit my website: http://www.susanlittlefield.blogspot.com/


  12. #12
    May or may not be a potato. thepicpic's Avatar
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    I think if you want to use cancer, feel free to do it. But I have a question...

    Would healing powers work on cancer? If the host's body can't identify cancerous cells and eradicate them accordingly, can the magic tell the difference? Perhaps destructive powers might be able to do the job (chemotherapy kills off all of the affected cell type, cancerous or otherwise), or a hybrid of the two?

    Just a thought, based on my own experience with cancer and its treatment.

  13. #13
    Alive in the silence Lunabird's Avatar
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    My dad survived cancer and my grandpa died from it, but I don't have any problems with this plot in the least. Forge ahead, I say.

  14. #14
    Oooh look at the pretty pony! goldhorse's Avatar
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    I've lost a grandma and two aunts to cancer. I also have a cousin who is a survivor. Really, the use of cancer doesn't bother me. However, I agree that it's a convenient go to for the dreaded "incurable disease". I'd suggest to get more creative.

  15. #15
    Imma Mum-Mum Beatlemaniac's Avatar
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    My take on this "incurable disease" plot? Write it very, very, seriously. If this is a "one minute someone has it, the next minute they don't" (even if it's eradicated by magical powers), it won't hold up, despite it happening to secondary characters.

    The reason I say this is because I lost both of my parents to cancer--and to two different types. I saw the physical and emotional damage of what it did to each of them. And yes, I would have given anything to have some magical cure heal them.

    That said, I don't have a problem with it in the plot, as long as the implications of what it does to people (and their loved ones) is "real", despite being in a fantasy storyline (which has to have some basis in reality to work properly).

    Since this is a fantasy, you could make up the disease as others have suggested. The good thing with this idea is you can determine just how "severe" it needs to be and how it serves it's purpose in the story.

    I hope I didn't come off as bitter or angry in this post, because I'm not in the least.
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  16. #16
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Hey guys,
    I really appreciate all the input on this. Just to share a little more about my thought processes, if you're interested, I don't think I can make up a disease, because I'm doing one of those magic-integrated-in-the-real-world type fantasies and I wanted a real disease to show its limits and also ground it more in something people can understand. Also, since cancer is really common, it is more likely that two characters would come down with it.

    Beatlemaniac, you're totally right about the "one minute someone has it, the next minute they don't" thing and that is why I was worried, not wanting it to seem like something I just threw in there to move the plot along. But even the girl who has more power than everyone else can only keep it at bay and runs herself ragged doing it.

    That said, that list looks really helpful (and terrifying) and I am going to look into other possible diseases to see if there's something else that would work.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful responses!

  17. #17
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    I have a good friend who has cystic fibrosis - today is actually her birthday. That would definitely be incurable, manageable, but huge pain to live with. My friend has been in and out of the hospital with all sorts of medical problems her whole life - pm me if you want more information.

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