Mutant is not a bad word

I am a mutant. Unlike the X-Men, I don’t have super powers. In fact, unless gene editing becomes commonplace in the next few years, I am likely to die early as a result of my genetic mutation.

Unpleasant truths, but true nonetheless.

TP53 is known as a “tumor suppressor gene.” One of my two TP53 genes is mutated, causing me to have Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS). This means I’m susceptible to developing many types of cancer. The stats for TP53 mutant women are so poor that, in some parts of the LFS community, we joke that a woman is “old” if she lives beyond her 40’s.

Perhaps a warped sense of humor is a mutant super power.

What Is A Mutant?

The words mutant and mutation come from the Latin mutare, “to change.” In genetics and biology, mutant refers to a gene, chromosome, organism, individual or animal that has undergone a mutation or change (see 1,2,3,4.) Early genetic research in about 1910 was done with mutant flies. Today, mutant mice and mutant zebrafish are just a few of the animals studied in the fight against cancer.

Humans are yet another mutant organism. As it turns out, we’re all mutants. Every human carries at least 100 genetic mutations. Some are neutral, causing no ill health effects — they give us blue eyes or red hair. Some mutations are advantageous, preventing diabetes or allowing us to digest lactose. Some genetic mutations are detrimental, like my mutant TP53.

Is Mutant Derogatory?

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and Li-Fraumeni Syndrome in 2015, I learned that there are a number of non-profit organizations dedicated to LFS patient support, advocacy, and LFS research. Living LFS runs private online support groups for people with LFS and their families and friends, safe places where “mutants” can share their experiences, their fears, their questions, and their snarky, dark senses of humor, if they choose, without judgment from others. This is key. Even though mutant is commonly used in science, some take great exception to the word when applied to humans. They feel that mutant is degrading. Some find “the m-word” as offensive as the n-word.

How did this happen?

Fear and Comics

The first mutant to appear in fiction and to be identified as such was in a story called Weird Woman in the comic book Amazing Detective Cases #11/2 in March of 1952. “Gloria” apparently had quite the advantageous mutation — it gave her the ability to make herself immaterial and to move objects with her mind. In the end, she used her powers for evil.

Mutants have been popular in fiction ever since. The X-Men and the Avengers entered the Marvel Comic Universe in 1963, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came on the comic book scene in 1984. Fictional genetic mutants almost always have super powers. And even though many mutants are heroes, others are greedy, dangerous and evil. Fictional mutants’ advantageous mutations often have detrimental social effects: mutants are usually portrayed as being persecuted, hated and feared for their differences.

Perhaps those who are sensitive to the word mutant focus on the marginalization of mutants, rather than the strength of the X-Men and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Perhaps they simply associate “mutant” with “deformed.”

Comics and other forms of entertainment often reflect their times.

In Marvel’s X-Men and Avenger stories, mutants have long served as a metaphor for real life minorities.

In 2013, Marvel brought issues of mutant identity politics into sharp comic book focus in Uncanny Avengers #5. Alex Summers, a mutant known as Havok, rejected being called a mutant, saying the word represented everything he hated.

Many in the comic community took issue with Havok’s position, as written by author Rick Remender. Andrew Wheeler of Comics Alliance put it this way:

“Havok’s speech makes a huge leap from, “my minority identity doesn’t define me” to a rejection of minority identity… There is an implication in Havok’s speech that “mutant” is a slur, “the “m” word,” — which… very obviously draws parallels to the n-word — but it’s the word mutants use to describe themselves. It can be used pejoratively — as can “gay”, “girl”, “black”, “Jew” — but it’s still the definitive linguistic presentation of a minority identity.

Even if “mutant” were a slur beyond reclamation, Havok presents no alternative language. The movement away from the terms “negro” and “colored” to identifiers like “African-American” wasn’t about rejecting labels. It was about rejecting the labels forced upon you and choosing your own. But when a reporter asks Havok what he wants to be called, he says, “How about Alex?”

The speech leaves us to believe that Havok doesn’t want there to be any word that describes his minority identity. He’s not saying that he’s not just a mutant, but that “mutant” is not among the things he wants to admit to being.

That’s not a message of inclusion. That’s a message of assimilation. That’s a message of erasure.”

This mutant agrees. LFS can be an invisible disease. I may be able to pass as looking “normal,” but I’m not normal. I’m in a small minority of people who are particularly poorly equipped to suppress cancerous tumors. Calling myself a mutant is one way I choose to engage with others, to prevent my experiences with LFS from being invisible.

Overlooked in the mutant debate is the incredibly important point that mutant is a legitimate scientific term. The n-word is a racial slur created only to degrade. The difference is vast.

Havok says, “No man should ever unilaterally take action or choose for so many.” He then chooses for all mutants himself when he says “don’t call us mutants,” rather than “don’t call me a mutant.” He was right the first time.

To Each Their Own

Having cancer is a deeply personal and sometimes lonely thing. Having a harmful rare genetic mutation is even more so. Our doctors, friends, family, and community all have their recommendations and opinions, and we may choose to agree and to follow them. But ultimately, the only one who makes the decisions about our treatment, our mindset, our language — is us. Each of us, individually.

We each decide how to deal with cancer and LFS in our own way, too. Some of us gain strength from imagining ourselves as warriors fighting a battle. Others reject this imagery. Some use positivity and a dietary overhaul to feel in control, others choose snark and black humor. For some, it’s a balance of all of the above. Or it can change depending on the day.

When part of the community rejects those of us that use mutant as a term of strength, pride, endearment and bonding, it’s an effort to choose for the entire community.

Acknowledging and accepting our individual choices is one of the most important things anyone can do for us, and that we can do for each other. This is one of the most valuable lessons cancer has taught me.

Many labels define me: white, American, cisgender, woman, tattooed, pierced, left handed, progressive, survivor, fighter. Mutant. Depending on how they’re used, any of these terms can be considered derogatory. But in reality, none of them actually are derogatory. They are definitions of who I am.

If some choose not to call themselves mutants, we mutants are fine with that. We won’t force it upon you. We’ll accept you. We’ll support you. If we choose to call ourselves mutants, let us. Accept us. Understand that it’s one of the ways we choose to deal. Support us.

I’m a Li-Fraumeni Syndrome genetic mutant, which means I’m susceptible to developing many different types of cancers. I dig photography and (mostly old) music.