The Big C: How my father’s cancer diagnosis helped me face the climate crisis

Back in August, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a report that handed people in the business of communicating climate change a doozy. “Code Red for Humanity,” is a hard-to-miss headline. Normally news like this fires up the neurons in the wonky, work side of my brain. But all I could think about was my dad.

Nine months ago he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. We got the news in an impossibly small, overheated exam room in early November 2020.

I can’t tell you how many times in my career I have written the line: scientists are as certain that humans are causing climate change as they are that cigarettes cause cancer. I always thought it was an impactful parallel. Now it’s a personal one.

My dad’s cancer journey has given me a way to think and talk about climate change, and what it means for us as a species, that is more intimate, honest, and nuanced than our usual conversations. Given that nearly everyone loves someone impacted by both–cancer and climate change–I wonder if there is a connection here that may help us face what lies ahead with greater acceptance, hope, and perseverance.

There is nothing radical about using disease, and cancer in particular, as a climate metaphor. In my early days as a climate campaigner, we tried desperately to emulate the wildly successful “fight cancer” battle cry with climate change equivalents. It never seemed to work. That was a decade ago, before the physical manifestations of climate change—the floods, the fires, the heat deaths—were so present and so personal, at least for some. But now that we are so close to the point of no return, we pathologize climate change in a different and less helpful way.

Take this example from a recent Washington Post story, covering the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) depressing State of the Climate report, a coda to the IPCC’s findings:

Sometimes Blunden [co-lead of the NOAA report] feels like a doctor whose patient won’t listen to health advice, watching a mild illness morph into a chronic disease. By this point, the patient practically has multiple organ failure, “and still they keep eating those Cheeto puffs,” she said.

My dad started smoking in 1959. He was 11. Many years later, he and the rest of us came to understand the causal relationship between smoking and cancer. He tried to quit, but never succeeded — not until the weeks leading up to his diagnosis, when the damage of smoking two packs a day for roughly 60 years was done, and the inevitable was upon us. The waves of guilt and shame he suffered in the early days of his cancer were unbearable to watch. It was my mom, who had carried the hurt and anger of my father’s addiction alongside him, who looked him in the eyes and told him to let it go. None of that shame would serve him now. It would only sap the strength we needed to move forward.

So much of our climate change conversation is rooted, understandably, in shame, guilt and anger; so little of it in awe and tenderness and compassion. It is easy to vilify, dehumanize, and self-flagellate; to call ourselves bad patients who can’t get off the Cheetos, or the cigarettes, or the fossil fuels. Let me be clear: we need to challenge the systems that perpetuate the climate crisis vigorously, tirelessly. But we need to ask whether it is necessary to level moral judgements against one another, and ourselves. Does shame serve us?

New research conducted through a collaboration of Canadian environmental groups suggests it may not. Framing climate change in moral terms does not work. It is, in fact, one of the least effective ways to engage people. We can’t afford not to engage people. If there is one thing we should fear more than climate change, it is a lack of agency, and hopelessness in the face of it. That is a tall order, but not an insurmountable one.

The doctor who confirmed my father’s cancer asked us to reconcile what felt like impossible contradictions. My dad couldn’t be cured, but it wasn’t a death sentence. His diagnosis was unchangeable, but his prognosis unknowable. What was most certain is what would happen if we did nothing. What was uncertain is what would happen if we tried everything. And “everything” included options that might not even exist, or exist only in experimental forms, right now.

The IPCC is telling us very much the same things.

What blew my mind was that my family not only wrapped our arms around these contradictions, but we found comfort in them. We embraced the necessity of two simultaneous paths: treatment and palliative care. On the surface, they appear almost at cross purposes. Treatment fights the cancer. Palliative care is meant to find tolerable ways to live with its impacts (as well as those caused by its treatment). Before I understood them, I hated the words “palliative care.” I thought they meant giving up. What they really mean is making life worth living and fighting for.

I have struggled to embrace these contradictions with climate change, an anxiety shared by many who communicate climate policy, science, and sustainability. We’re afraid of scaring people too much, or not enough. Afraid of over-selling technological solutions or not selling them at all. Afraid of “ceding the fight” by talking about adaptation (read: palliative care) or “ignoring reality” by talking about mitigation (read: treatment).

But, in addition to finding the courage to be less moralistic and more compassionate, we also need to find the courage to be honest—even when it’s messy, imperfect, and uncomfortable. No one told my dad, “This is going to be easy.” Nothing ahead of us is easy. “Every place has its disaster coming for it,” says Alex Steffan, a global sustainability leader. “This is not an issue. It’s an era.”

There is something very clarifying about accepting where we are and what lies ahead. The job becomes simply this: to relieve as much suffering as we can in our lifetimes. Find whatever agency we have and use it to do all the things. Big and small, fast and slow, radical and incremental. All of them. I don’t think we can be afraid any longer of the inherent contradictions in that response. Nor can we be afraid that “everything” may not be enough.

As Jonathon Franzen wrote in his own climate reckoning, “if collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing.” If fighting cancer gives my dad more years, to see his grandsons graduate from high school, to spend more time in the garden, to help get a few more shelter dogs adopted – it would be worth it. It is worth it.

“The future isn’t written,” said Rick Smith, Executive Director of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, when asked what hope he could find in the IPCC report. We cannot undo the past, but we can do everything in our power to bend the arc of history away from suffering, towards life.

That’s how we need to start thinking and talking about climate change, with the determined tenderness that comes from facing our own mortality — and persisting.

About the Author

Jessie Sitnick

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