Outwitting Cancer is the first UK-based exhibition on cancer research (Francis Crick Institute (FCI) 25 Sep 2021 to 15 Jul 2022), with a focus on the advancement of technologies and treatments. Lizzie Merrill reviews.
From its title alone, Outwitting Cancer appears to have recalibrated our illness metaphors; no longer do we practice outright warfare to eradicate cancer but rather a more scientific and strategic approach of ‘outsmarting’. Has cancer research really lost its “military flavour” (Sontag 1978)?
Despite the shift away from militarised language in the title, the exhibition’s tagline already paints a familiarly elaborate picture of cancer as a rule-breaking, rebellious killer. “Why doesn’t cancer play by the rules, and who are the people trying to outsmart these rebel cells?” This metaphor of rebellion, albeit sufficient in explaining the oppositional nature of cancerous cells in fulfilling their biological role, goes much too far: what is the object of their rebellion? The phrase “rebel cells” is repeated on a board at the entrance to the exhibition, at which point it felt necessary to remind myself that my own cancer was not a purposeful act of defiance from my body, nor has it ever been anyone else’s. Sixteen years into remission from Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, I have a complex relationship with cancer research. I learnt retrospectively that my parents had to agree on my behalf to experimental chemotherapy that I stood only a 50% chance of living through. The more complex ethical implications that arise from research and treatment are often overlooked in favour of a somewhat mawkish gratefulness for breakthroughs, and Outwitting Cancer is no different in this regard.
The exhibition begins with a video projection in a curtained room. Bright, aestheticised cells gush across a rocky wall, changing colour and mutating. The space is serene and enclosed and, for a moment, I wondered whether this is what it’s like to occupy a body that is not afraid of its own cell mutations. Between the visuals and sounds, this room is in perfect opposition to the idea of cancer as a “rebel”. Projected cells come together and drift apart as effortlessly as breathing. There’s nothing inherently threatening about this process and I wonder whether, because of that, I might be misinterpreting it. I am reminded of the moment a nurse tried to explain my leukaemia to me with laminated cartoons of cells with human characteristics. I immediately rejected the red blood cell soldiers and fought for the star shaped leukaemic cells to remain in my body. As I try to decipher what is and what is not a healthy cell, I consider whether this line of questioning might be the object of the projection. With the grandeur of the FCI’s reception only metres away, perhaps I am to be reminded that I am no scientist; there is a division between what knowledge is to be shared and what is to be withheld. Perhaps the FCI believed that in order for ‘non-scientists’ to be engaged in the work of cancer research, it must be marketed as artistic and eye-catching.
Leaving this curtained space, I walk out into a series of television interviews with FCI specialists, separated by colourful half-walls with emotive, person-shaped cutouts. I find the ‘blood cancer’ research clip – my specialist area. Dominique Bonnet teaches her interviewer how she grows haematopoietic stem cells in the lab that can be transplanted into mice to then research how leukaemia develops. This is incredibly intricate work and I find myself drawn to the material that Bonnet uses to grow these cells. It is supposed to look and work like our body’s bone marrow (the blood cell production centre) and can apparently be bought easily online. The tangibility of what was before an unimaginable substance is mesmerising.
I drift over to the small cabinet that accompanies this clip. Inside are two needles, one very large and one much smaller, used by Bonnet to deposit the stem cells into the bone marrow-like material for the mice. The caption reads “bone marrow biopsy needles” and an explanation is given for how “a long needle is used to puncture the patient’s hip while under a local anaesthetic. The biopsy needle goes right through the bone to reach the marrow within and collect the sample.” We are no longer being told about mice. I can feel the ache in my lower back as though fresh; the post-op pain is such a familiar and profound memory that I could point to the place where my own bone marrow was biopsied with this needle, 16 years ago. Despite this, I have never before seen such a needle in person. At this moment, looking at the two needles side-by-side, I feel closer to the mice from Bonnet’s lab than the scientists at the FCI. The switch from spectator to specimen is abrupt, but my accompanying feeling of helplessness is one that recurs in the sparse patient testimony throughout the exhibit.
BBC presenter George Alagiah, who is living with stage 4 bowel cancer, interviews stem cell scientist, Vivian Li, on the work she’s doing to develop more individualised treatments for those with his variation of the disease. At the end of the clip, Alagiah, in a friendly but yearning tone pleads, “Vivian, please, please do some overtime”. His life is hinging on the hours that Li and her lab are at work. In another clip, FCI scientist, Simon Boulton, chats to retired lawyer and brain tumor patient, Adam Blain, who explains his diagnosis as being “given a death sentence”. Boulton tries to lighten this outlook by expressing gratitude that Blain is still here six years down the line, a sentiment cut short by Blain’s quick wit, “still on death row, yes”.
Desperate for more patient-led testimony, I walked into the only participatory part of this exhibition. A circular space, half mirrors, half hanging ribbons covered in small note cards. The aim of this space is to invite visitors to assert their relationship to cancer (i.e. lived experience, relative, researcher, other) and to have them write and share their thoughts about it. Among the very few ‘lived-experience’ cards, people were grateful, thankful, determined to beat the disease. One card comforted me: it questioned where the research on preventative measures against cancer was situated and why it bore no mention. I felt like at least one other person wasn’t seeing this exhibition through rose-tinted glasses of gratitude. For all the years after treatment we spend being grateful, why is criticism of cancer research seen as so mutinous?
Taking a card and feeling empowered to be offering something different to this very one-dimensional collection of thanks, I wrote about how strange it felt to be a spectator to this show.
“Today was the first time that I saw a medical tool that was used to operate on me more than once.”
Rather than marvelling at the impressiveness of scientific developments, I was instead left to wonder if the mice who had their bone marrow injected felt the same pain that I had. For me, the end justified the means. For Alagiah, Blain and numerous others living with cancer, treatments and research are not yet much to celebrate.
Outwitting Cancer makes a lot of assumptions about its audience, with one of the most harmful being that those who attend are well. For its failure to acknowledge the substantial gaps in cancer research, this did not feel like an exhibition for those living through treatment or after-effects. Lived testimony was limited and at times condescending. In asking Adam Blain if he knew “anything” about cancer before his diagnosis, Simon Boulton ignores that science is not the only model we have to interpret health and illness. Every short clinical explanation printed on the walls went a little further in determining cancer as ‘other’, ‘the minority’ or ‘the rebel’, resisting the established authority of medical professionals. This left very little room for understanding how some might live for years with the presence of cancer. Although the exhibition at times gave a sense of closeness to the tangibility of my disease and treatment, I primarily felt like a helpless body to be studied and recorded, rather than the voice of an experience to be heard and taken note of.
 Cancer cells are cells that keep dividing and never specialise, unlike healthy cells that settle into their specialised role, dividing only when necessary.
About the author
Lizzie Merrill is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Women’s Studies at York University. Her project ‘Post-Identity Patienthood in the Cancer Narratives of Jo Spence and Anne Boyer’ is supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, through the White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities.
Blain, Adam. 2015. Pear Shaped: The Funniest Book So Far This Year about Brain Cancer. California: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
Sontag, Susan. 1978. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.