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Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

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After having read the book Illness as Metaphor and AIDS as Its Metaphors, by Susan Sontag, I have developed a very different perspective on the concept of diseases. In her novel, Sontag describes the social stigmas associated with terminal diseases such as tuberculosis, cancer, and AIDS, and how the effects these stigmas have on patients with terminal illnesses. Initially, I thought of sickness and infections very objectively. I perceived them as abnormalities that needed to be treated as soon as possible, and once they were dealt with they would not have any further implications. I never processed the idea that the social perception of sick people had such an influence on the lives of individuals with terminal illnesses.


In the first part of the book, Sontag contrasts the perceptions of tuberculosis with cancer. She explains how those diagnosed with tuberculosis to have soulful and beautiful lives that were romantic and bohemian. Tuberculosis, or TB, was a disease that primarily affected people in the late 19th century and not much was known of the disease epidemiology. The disease was glorified in stories by authors, as it was thought that TB sparked creativity in artists and others affected. Sontag goes onto compare how tuberculosis as an illness of the soul and cancer as a sickness of the body. She claims it in socially inappropriate to romanticize cancer because it is a degenerative disease that seems to suck the life out of its patients. As she describes these perceptions, she does not refute them or try to rid the stigma surround the diseases, instead she just tries to summarize people’s perceptions and the metaphors the illnesses stand for. Before reading this book, I never thought of tuberculosis in a romanticized manner, but the more that I think of it, it is exemplified in many forms of media and literature. From Moulin Rouge to stories by Emerson, tuberculosis is referred to as an inspiration for creative works. Also, I feel that Sontag classifies cancer as a disease that is much worse than tuberculosis, when in fact they are both equally as painful and difficult to overcome.


The author writes about the general definition of illness and how one can determine classify them. She states that “every form of social deviation can be considered an illness [and that] every illness can be considered psychologically” (56). Personally, I believe that the mind is a very powerful influence over the mind, but I am skeptical to believe that it is the driving force behind curing illnesses. If people are in a good mood and think positively about overcoming an illness, they have a higher chance of becoming better. I understand patients of terminally ill diseases will try to have any hope possible, but I think the I-function has a higher influence over the brain’s ability than she gives credit for. People might be able to consciously think they are getting better, even if they understand that the disease they are diagnosed with is fatal, and if they perceive their sensory input, they might be able to alter the symptoms of their illness. Also, the brain and mind is in control of the body, and a combination of the two influences the actions of the body. Therefore, I believe that preserving the mind and brain is more important than the body. This could be another possible reason for why cancer is currently and even more dangerous disease than tuberculosis because tuberculosis is typically a disease of one organ, while cancer can affect any part of the body and then spread to the other vital organs. So, while tuberculosis can be controlled and designated to one part of the body, cancer is more unpredictable and could therefore strike any part of the body at any time.