Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The profundity, shame, and denial of cancer and what Viktor Frankl might have to say

A friend recently posted this on her blog from an article in the New York Times and her mother sent it to me.

It is worth reading, and I hope you will find my short response that follows also of some help.

June 8, 2010, 2:00 pm Pushing Back at Cancer By DANA JENNINGS

Why does cancer seem so profound to us when compared to other diseases? And why do some patients clam up about their illness, while others are compelled to bear witness?

Dana Jennings

I’ve been asking myself these questions a lot lately. It will be two years next month since I had my prostate surgically removed, then learned that I unexpectedly had an aggressive Stage 3 cancer. In turn, that led to 33 radiation sessions and six months of hormone therapy.

I haven’t had any treatment in well over a year and my blood tests are right where I want them to be. Yet, I still feel haunted by cancer, can’t quite shake the depression and fatigue that arrived with the disease. They squat on my shoulders like two old crows.

Cancer does capture our imaginations. A quick check on Amazon.com shows about 44,000 books with the word “cancer” in the title (including a certain racy novel by Henry Miller), but only about 8,000 with “heart disease” on the cover, and a mere 311 holding forth on poison ivy.

One aspect of the bleak and profound chord that cancer strikes within us is the shame and silence that sometimes accompany the disease. My friend Gary, who was treated for prostate cancer last year, said that when he was a kid family members used to say that someone “went to Europe,” rather than admit that person had been killed by cancer.

My old and ornery New Hampshire relatives thought they could whup cancer through denial and sheer Yankee cussedness — no matter where they were bleeding from or how much. In the end, they died of their shame in raging silence.

I understand them, partly. A cancer diagnosis in their day was generally a death sentence — and people don’t want to talk about their executioners. Then there was the guilt, caused by thinking that maybe they were somehow at fault for being sick. And cancer’s earthiness, often striking at sexual organs and waste functions, also hushed them.

But in their fear, my relatives deified cancer, calling it “the Cancer,” the capital “C” understood. Sometimes, our entire culture deifies cancer. President Richard M. Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, and John Wayne, in his best swaggering voice, once boasted that he had “licked the big “C.” (Mr. Wayne was wrong, however.)

For me, cancer’s profundity is about the biological betrayal at the cellular level, that somehow a killer has grown inside us. When I ponder cancer, I imagine darkness creeping into my body from some unknown abyss. And there’s that awful sense of being devoured, cell by cell.

We know that we’ve been damaged by our cancers and, too, by the treatment — by the radiation and the chemo and the scalpels. It reminds me of classic Orwellian double-speak from the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the patient to save him, sir!”

And there’s always the nagging feeling that we could end up starring in an unwanted sequel to our cancer movie: The alien hordes from inner space have been vanquished, for now.

Ultimately, we’re offered a choice in the cultural exile cancer cultivates. We can just shrug and become one of the mute living dead, or we can try to become free-range sages, sharing our tales and trying to bring a little light into this world.

That’s why more than 400 people -– patients, caregivers and perhaps a few cancer-patient groupies -– gathered at a Relay for Life cancer fundraiser in Montclair, N.J., last Friday night. We were there to share tears and stories; there to hug each other and smile; there to remind ourselves that, damn it, we were not our cancers.

As we walked throughout the hot and muggy night till daybreak, our very movement defied the stillness that cancer tries to insist on.

Here is what I wrote back to her mother in response to sending me the link, with the personal references deleted.

Dear friend,

A bit dark for my liking. Certainly truthful, but only one perspective. He nails the Yankee fortitude, and I would add new age positivism ("The Secret" crap) and the power of faith and prayer to the list of the too often heart wrenching failures.

Also the self betrayal of your own body is so hard to shallow. He owns that one.

The dirty shame aspect seems historical, much less of a force these days. but replaced by those blathering well intentioned idiots who insist if you just had fewer negative thoughts or were thinner or just truly believed or (this one cuts close to my bones) ate less meat all this would never would have happened. That is one of the many unfairness of this disease: the necessity of listening to those as yet uninflicted preach their particular path as the one and only road to longevity. Give me a break. Mr. Jennings conjures the old shame demons but not the new ones.

My much bigger issue is what light is it that he want to share? That cancer is crappy? That the treatment sucks? OK. I can go for that, but I want more.

What is missing is the way out. A deeper understanding than just the words that we are more than our cancer. We are fully alive and with Viktor Frankl's conviction, we can still define ourselves in our struggles. Mr Jennings acknowledge we have a choice, but does he clearly see that act of choosing for the light saber it is?

We never ever lose that freedom to decide how we react, even when we have lost all hope. Does Mr. Jennings really know that ultimate strength he has? For his sake, I sure hope so.

Stay strong. Thanks for sharing this. I will likely use it in a post.

Me? I am still swinging for the fences, so that I won't ever need to worry about all this stuff.

Your foul weather friend


Labels: , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Feeling raw already and this article was just what I needed to be fully cooked. "Dad's numbers have gone down" this is what I hear from my Mom lips in slow motion the minute Dad walks out of the room. No more appetite for me, lump in throat, twisted gut..i am done, want to run from the sadness that has been hiding like a grim Lord or the Rings character.
I have had a year off from the worry. He has been in remission for a year. I have been as creative as a 6 year old but with 40 years of know how.
Numbers down is not awful news but it's the fear in her eyes that drowns me. I can handle my Fathers death, I can survive the misery of people bugging me, trying to ram rod me with Christian love.
Can I remain a float in my always cheery Mom's tsunami?
Today I think maybe, but it's going to take a huge pre-social purge on my part.
A 46 year marriage , the only man she ever kissed. I am just not sure how she will survive more health drama...it's changing her.
Tuesday it's marrow tapping time so I will have to wait, she will have to wait.
I will have to go on like it's all OK until it's not... on the outside.
good thing I have a puppy and a new bike.
Love X1000

June 16, 2010 at 9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this my friend!

June 16, 2010 at 4:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cancer strikes those with immune system deficiencies, IMO. Certainly we see that in CLL; secondary cancers are much more likely with an impaired immune system.

I, too, dislike the idiotic notion that not being vegan causes cancer, or that I'm not positive enough or something. And CLL has few if any strong links to lifestyle or external factors.

I suppose the one thing having CLL for 11 1/2 years is that we are all dying. I kept telling myself that I shouldn't do this or that, because I probably wouldn't be able to finish the project, or I would be too sick to get to the end of the semester. But, that means turning your back on many things.

We are all dying. The only thing that any of us can do is to muddle on, and make the best of what time we have left. And to make our life count.

June 26, 2010 at 8:07 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home