In the NY Times Sunday Review (August 28, 2011) there appears a powerful piece entitled “Cancer: Fighting Words” written by Daniel Menaker, a writer and recurrent cancer patient. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/opinion/sunday/cancer-fighting-words.html
As I read his words I reflected back upon my own treatment for prostate cancer two plus years ago, the eight weeks of radiation following it and how Barbara and I dealt with my diagnosis, surgery and follow-up treatment.
I should say up front that I am currently cancer free, which distinguishes me from Mr. Menaker and many other people with cancer. Though my tumor was high-grade (9 on the Gleason scale; 10 is the highest and almost always deadly; 9 is often deadly), I had the benefit of treatment from a surgeon and then a radiation oncologist both of whom are world-class. I was also watched over by my brother, Michael, a hematologist-oncologist on faculty and staff at UCLA. I was very lucky. Most people do not receive the quality of care I did.
When my pre-op biopsy revealed how bad my tumor was, I was terrified, imagined that it had spread and that I had only a couple of years of life left. My surgeon calmed me somewhat when he said, “John, yes – you have a very bad tumor, but there is a lot we can do, and we are going to bring out all the cannons to treat you!”
I was comforted by his reassurance and, strangely, by the military language he used. I needed to know in the strongest most combative language that I would survive. Thankfully, my fears were short-lived. After the surgery my doctor determined that the tumor had not spread and that I would be healed and live a normal life.
In contrast to Daniel Menaker and anyone with recurring cancer, I can understand why the military metaphors are disturbing. He quotes Dr. Andrew Weil as saying that conducting a personal “war” is “not the best way” to think of cancer. He also notes that “Cancer patients writing online and bloggers … deplored this linguistic habit.” One asked “Does it mean that if I croak it’s my fault?”
Mr. Menaker favors the ‘demilitarization’ of cancer rhetoric, and though it satisfied an emotional need in me in the initial period after diagnosis and before surgery when I did not know what I was facing, for those in long-term treatment I understand why it is better to regard cancer not as a ‘war’ with victors and vanquished, but as a “problem to be solved, or not solved.”
Thinking of oneself as a “victim” is not helpful to patients who need their inner reserves to remain hopeful and up-beat during treatment and over the long term. Most patients, dependent upon their physician’s protocols and treatment, just want to know that everything possible is being done to make them well.
For Daniel Menaker and others like him, I wish them r’fuah sh’leimah (complete recovery) as their disease is addressed, managed and, God willing, put into remission indefinitely.