Treating cancer is a business. Even not-for-profits want patients, and the fees and reputation that come with them. So hospitals advertise their services, and in particular their cancer services. I’ve seen ads for Weill Cornell and Memorial Sloan Kettering, among other places.
These can’t be the easiest ads to create, since the undeniable truth is that some cancers are harder to treat than others, and so the only way a cancer center could have a record of complete or near-complete success would be to avoid all the difficult cancers. Medical institutions also have to wrestle with ratings systems that may be no more reliable than those that have caused so much distress among law schools. Many people in need of cancer treatment might, in the absence of ads, rely on even vaguer reputations, or on no information at all. Nevertheless, there should be limits, whether they’re created by law or just by good judgment.
So consider this ad (from an institution I won’t name), on display at the train station near my house. The most prominent text, other than the institution’s name, reads as follows (I haven’t reproduced the typography exactly, but this will give you an idea of its appearance):
CANCER IS SMART.
BUT WE’RE SMARTER.
We’re outsmarting cancer with science.
Now, really. We haven’t yet outsmarted cancer with science, though we’ve made headway. It’s true that the text doesn’t quite say we’ve already outsmarted cancer, just that “[w]e’re outsmarting it,” but the distinction is hardly emphasized. After all, the institution says that “we’re smarter” than cancer. And the line “WINNING IS EVERYTHING” certainly implies that the institution is offering this “everything.” That can’t be true, at least for many patients, who will sooner or later lose their fight with cancer. That’s aside from the question of what “winning” means, and of whether “winning” that consisted of beating back a cancer at the cost of the patient’s quality of life would really be “everything.”
That’s all bad enough. But the final straw is the racial politics of the accompanying illustration. This picture features, from left to right, a male South Asian doctor whose name is visible on his white coat; a female Asian doctor whose name is, similarly, visible on her white coat; and a bearded black man, dressed in a short-sleeved blue shirt with no name visible, who is presumably an assistant of some sort. These pictures are planned, and these individuals chosen. It’s true that all three are people of color, but even so this picture seems to embody a pretty stereotypical image of medical expertise.