I don’t remember exactly when Cancer entered my vocabulary of understanding although as a teenager, I was very aware of breast cancer and mastectomies. My girlfriend’s mother was diagnosed and underwent the surgery around 1950. Partly because her mother was a nurse and her father a doctor, they talked about it openly. Then, I heard my parents talking about different relatives and friends who were diagnosed and treated with different kinds of Cancer – breast, kidney, stomach, brain and all I knew was that there were very unfriendly tumors that grew inside of people that caused great pain, suffering and often, death.
Fast forward to 2009 when we lived in London and my wife was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Fortunately she had swift and excellent diagnosis and treatment that included some very aggressive chemotherapy. Her oncologist and hospital experience were absolutely first-class, actually, world class, and we were blessed to be there. And blessed that there was a treatment protocol that had proven effective. It was a very rough six months but she came out on top and now, eight years later, she is doing just fine.
In the past few years we have watched numerous friends and relatives be confronted with what has been described as “The Emperor of All Maladies” the title of a 2011 book by Siddartha Mukherjee. When it won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, it was called “An elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal, into the long history of an insidious disease that, despite treatment breakthroughs, still bedevils medical science.”
I could give you a detailed description of four good friends and two close relatives who, in the past three years have had to deal with some of the worst experiences of their lives in terms of this disease and its concomitant treatments. Those treatments included surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy and a regimen of drugs along with continued suffering and pain. Five of the six are no longer with us.
So what’s the point? My question is how do we prepare ourselves better to be able to deal with our friends’ and family’s feelings, and ours, that can include, at times, intense anger, frustration, disappointment and fear? I do not believe there are any easy answers nor is there a recipe or formula for getting through these experiences. I go back to a rather trite quote: “We do the best we can where we are with what we have.” Maybe we can reach a deeper level of understanding and be present for those who have to deal with Cancer in its many forms. I hope we can do better. I hope we can help them express what worries them most so that the burden of carrying the disease and treatment doesn’t weigh them down even more. Whatever we can do to lighten their load might help, even a little bit. Cancer, as the second leading cause of death, claimed almost 600,000 lives in the U.S. in 2014. That’s not a helpful statistic but it’s a reality that we have to face, and we don’t like it at all.
One of the most neglected branches of medicine is palliative care. Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing problems associated with life-threatening illness. That is done through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual. It’s a much more comprehensive approach rather than so much focus on the disease only. For a complete definition of palliative care look at the World Health description here: http://www.who.int/cancer/palliative/definition/en/
In the final analysis, we’re all going to die someday. The majority of people do not believe or even know that we have much more we can say about that than is usually the case. Therefore, it would behoove us to look a little more into that tremendous possibility. Woody Allen may have summed it up best when he said, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” That is unfortunately the attitude and perspective of most people. The fact is when you no longer have an abiding fear of death, you’re free to live, even to the last.
People who believe their lives are limited by circumstances outside of their control need to know that they can often control more than they thought possible. One last time. They can do what they can where they are with what they have. Our role is to help them decide what they want the quality of their lives to be in spite of whatever limitations they face. We need to help make their lives the best they can be whether it’s for a year or two or even many more. The Bigger C needs to be Compassion, not just Cancer.