11 April 2007: Cancer & Research

Cancer deserves man-on-the-moon status

Life, as many understand but for which few are prepared, often throws us a curve and, on occasion, a bean ball. Of late, following the national news has been an exercise of reconsidering which issue rises to the top in terms of crisis: Iraq? global warming? collapse of the American infra-structure?

Two words: Tony Snow. Two more: Elizabeth Edwards: Another two: Jonathan Alter. One word: Cancer—the C-Word.

Tony, the administration’s press secretary, and Elizabeth, the wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, are the more notable given their political status. Tony at age 50 had had his colon removed. Elizabeth at 54 battled breast cancer. For both, the cancer had been in remission but has resurfaced.

Jonathan Alter is a columnist for Newsweek, who in his mid-forties was given the grim news: Despite a healthy and active lifestyle, cancer in his colon would change his life permanently. His story “How I Live with Cancer” is the cover in last week’s Newsweek. Part of its message is hard truth, simple and stark: Some beat cancer; the rest must learn to live with it or the potential for its reappearance.

For me that might have been a mental construct. But an old friend, a fellow teacher in her forties, despite an active and healthy lifestyle, was likewise recently diagnosed. That made the C-Word up close and personal. Found not soon enough, it metastasized. Now undergoing an intensive chemo regimen in order to knock it down and make it operable, her world has been turned, as it has been for Tony, Elizabeth, and Jonathan, from finding pleasure in and stressing over the simple and mundane to fighting for her life. That, in turn, has caused those of us in her personal world to come to grips with how quickly a life can be set on a new trajectory, a most unpleasant one to put it mildly.

When I watched Tony Snow do polemical gyrations at the White House spinning words to explain his boss, I would think, “How could an affable guy like you keep a straight face and sleep at night doing what you do?” Now, I wonder each day how he’s coming along.

In 2004 I became a supporter of John Edwards primarily because he remembers how tough it was for him and his family growing up. After Elizabeth’s 2004 revelation and watching the Edwards respond to the cancer’s reappearance with gritty determination and poise in the national spotlight, particularly after having endured Katie Curic’s “some say” interview on 60 Minutes, they have risen to the level of water walkers. Though it is John who is running for president, her cancer has made Elizabeth no longer separable from him in public awareness. Individually and as a couple, theirs is a story with which everyday Americans can identify—mere mortals rising from the depths, absorbing each blow from life, never giving up, never giving up, never, never giving up.

Jonathan has written his story to date. It is powerful and poignant—a must read. He addresses not only his turmoil and the coming to grips with his reality but also writes about people like me: friends and acquaintances who struggle to do and say the right things, stumbling and bumbling, meaning well but fearing we may do or say the wrong thing.

I have come to understand there is not any one prescription for that. Each can only do his or her best. It’s a matter of thoughtful inner discourse understanding that the individual diagnosed is likely going through similar steps of grief, from denial to acceptance, one undergoes after losing a loved one. It therefore requires understanding your friend is riding a daily roller coaster, from heights of hope to depths of despair with curves of melancholy between. In short, it requires the most noble of human virtues: compassion and empathy.

With the national focus on the pervasiveness of cancer—for one in three Americans will be diagnosed with it—the AIDS epidemic comes to mind. Fortunately, there hasn’t been any Reverend Phelps—the fundamentalist preacher who proclaims “God hates fags” and led protests at Matthew Shepherd’s and soldiers’ funerals—nut-types proclaiming cancer is a punishment from God. It is simply a biological pathology that destroys.

However, cancer need not be a death sentence, and, if there can be a positive note, it can serve as a reminder of what is important in life, encouraging us in the supporting cast to put all the rest in perspective. Frances Gunther in the classic story Death Be Not Proud puts it best after losing her young son: “Parents all over the earth who lost sons in the war have felt this kind of question and sought an answer. To me, it means loving life more, being more aware of life, of one’s fellow human beings, of the earth.”

In an aside, Lance Armstrong writes in Newsweek, “It’s clear that the way we battle cancer is deeply at odds with our values as a country and with our common sense. There is a serious gap between what we know and what we do; what we deserve and what we get; what should be and what is.” As we continue to pour our treasury and resources into the hell-hole of death—Iraq—I wonder where we could be had we invested that half a trillion dollars, akin to JFK’s man-on-the-moon goal, into finding cures for cancer, AIDS, and the like. That, indeed, would have been choosing life.

At the end, Jonathan quotes a line from the Shawshank Redemption: “You can get busy living, or you can get busy dying.” Tony, Elizabeth, Jonathan, Lance, and my friend have opted to get busy living—courageously.

Periodically, I remind my friend, “You focus on your healing; the rest of us got your back.”

One in three—the question before us: When will the nation get their backs?

A related note: If you are over 40 and haven’t had a colonoscopy or other appropriate medical procedure, it’s past time. Unfortunately, too many, especially men who love to delude themselves into thinking they are invincible, will avoid such procedures. I had my colonoscopy done at 55, which is the standard practice. In hindsight, I say to myself, “O foolish child for waiting that long.”

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