Since Patrick Swayze developed pancreatic cancer, and Ted Kennedy developed a brain tumor, cancer has been in the news a bit more than usual lately. Both of these forms of cancer are notoriously difficult to “cure”, much more so than a body full of metastasized breast cancer. An article in the New York Times Sunday paper this morning discussed (without speaking to either man) their responses, and cancer responses in general. It was interesting, yes, but I found myself disagreeing with a lot of the hype. I guess I’d call it hype, because there is a lot of hype with cancer these days. It’s become a pretty common disease, in some ways kind of like a long-term, serious cold—and it’s also become big business.
Of course breast cancer has been big business for the last decade or so, with pink ribbons everywhere and Race for the Cure and Athena water—and all of these organizations have been hugely helpful to thousands of women and their families, and I have nothing against them at all. But as I’ve said, I have not jumped on the cancer bandwagon that they represent.
As for the commonality of cancer these days, I think that’s one of the reasons why the infusion nurses enjoy their jobs. No longer are people in their care because their cases are terminal—in fact, the SCCA has recently extended the hours of the infusion center to because a lot of people are coming in to get their treatments after work. The patients arrive, chat with each other about their lives and their families, what they like to cook for dinner, where they’re taking vacations, their jobs. It’s become a bit of a six-month social hour, and for the most part patients seem to see it as a time to relax and be cared for and have some down time. Attitude is important, of course.
My nurse, Sandy, also told me, while she slowly gave me my Benadryl injection and I went, 30 seconds in, totally loopy (like, room shifting around, couldn’t shut up, but couldn’t stay awake), that some of her younger clients urge her to push it in fast—just for the rush. So even the treatments have some benefits.
But the thing in the article that I did not agree with was the interpretation of the public response people are giving to their cancers. For example, Patrick Swayze just showed up at a Laker game in LA with his wife, looking fit and chiseled-jawed, and Ted Kennedy recently gave a thumbs up and then raced in a sailboat race. Referring to the event, a doctor said “‘If Ted Kennedy wanted to stick up his middle finger,’ Dr. Lerner added, ‘that would be the more appropriate finger, but he’s doing what he is supposed to.’”
Well, how do we know? Maybe he’s “doing what he is supposed to,” but maybe he’s doing what he feels. Maybe he was excited to be boating—I know it makes me feel great—and maybe he truly feels good right now. Maybe he’s okay with his road and its curves and U-turns and hills (an alternative metaphor offered in the article to the typical “fight a battle” one, which, as I’ve pointed out as well, pits you against an enemy and someone is going to lose), and maybe he was expressing his true beliefs about his case.
Yes, it’s true that cancer can be incredibly difficult for the friends and family and strangers around—at times, in ways, much more difficult than for the actual person experiencing the disease and the often difficult therapies. But that doesn’t mean that a cancer patient is being dishonest when she or he is being “strong,” or “optimistic,” or “funny.” Those things are all at least as much a part of me as fear and sadness, and lately I’ve been gratified to find that they’re been much more.
“Putting a brave face on a difficult time” is perhaps just living life. Honestly and wholeheartedly.