Sontag wrote this polemical book in the wake of her own arduous recovery from breast cancer. Although she nowhere mentions her own illness in the book, her own experience with a life-threatening disease (as she admitted in interviews) was the inspiration for her work.
Sontag’s main concern is to refute the idea that there are psychological causes of disease. To her, disease is a physical problem that is best treated by securing the best possible medical diagnosis and therapy. She is particularly disturbed by the idea that cancer, for example, can be induced through the repressing of emotions. She likens this belief to earlier notions that tuberculosis was somehow associated with the artistic sensibility or with especially sensitive natures. In the end, the disease, scientists discovered, had nothing at all to do with personality but with a bacillus that could be treated with antibiotics.
Sontag argues that a mystique envelops diseases such as tuberculosis and cancer, which is only dispelled when the physical causes of these illnesses are revealed. In the nineteenth century, for example, a body of Romantic literature associated tuberculosis with the long-suffering artist, just as cancer in Sontag’s own time was associated with certain inhibited personality types. Sontag draws on an impressive body of literature to demonstrate how art has shaped the public’s reaction to illness.
The consequences of such Romantic thinking are that the ill person feels doomed—even feeling that he or she has in some mysterious way caused the sickness. This sense of fate works against the patient’s efforts to secure the best medical treatment. It even prevents doctors from being honest with the patients for fear that the dreaded word “cancer” will sap the patient’s desire to get well. Sontag argues vigorously against this tendency to succumb to fear and shame, urging her readers to take charge of their own medical care by aggressively seeking the best treatment.