Monday, February 23, 2015

Today's Cancer Is Not Yesterday's Cancer

Medical Advances & The Human Spirit

I watched Terms of Endearment a couple of days ago, a wonderful American film that I had not seem since it was first released to the public in 1983; it is about relationships and the strength of women who hold them together. Much of the film is focused on the relationship between mother (played by Shirley MacLaine) and daughter (played by Debra Winger). The relationships that each have with the men in their lives are important but take on a secondary or complementary role. Jack Nicholson and Jeff Daniels play the men.

There is a sense that relationships are both fragile and wonderful, and that when tragedy strikes, reconciliation is both possible and necessary; one of the tragedies in this film is that the daughter is diagnosed with cancer, and it is terminal. The daughter soon succumbs to the disease; the scene between her and her two boys is especially touching.

The movie spoke to me in many ways, one of which was that a diagnosis of cancer in the 1980s was often a ”death sentence.” But no so today; medical research has not only greatly increased our understanding of cancer and its mechanisms. but it has also lead to treatments that can prolong life without the compromising life-draining side effects of the past. In short, we have learned a lot more about cancer, and how to treat and beat it.

The movie brings to memory my family’s situation, and what my mother and my two brothers faced. My father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in March 1980; after enduring surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, my dad fought valiantly for life. He died eight months later in November 1980. Fast forward thirty years later. I am two years cancer-free, or two years N.E.D., or no evidence of disease. Not cured, since there is no cure for cancer. I am acutely aware of this fact, but I do not give it much thought. Apart from some secondary side-effects, I feel happy and grateful  to be alive and live my life accordingly

Towards the end of the film, the words “she is gone” are said; these are as powerful as “she will live.” Or in my case, “I will live.”  Thankfully, these words are more common today than they were thirty years ago. I cannot over-emphasize the power of knowledge when applied and directed to medical research and the betterment of human lives. L’chaim. To life.

This is not to say or suggest in any way that humanity has achieved its final victory over cancer. No, cancer is still a dreadful and awful disease, but not as awful as it once was. It is also true that not all cancers are treatable; I read about the case of Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and writer, who has a terminal form of cancer that has metastasized to the liver; it is inoperable, untreatable.  In The New York Times (“My Own Life”: February19, 2015), Sacks, who is 81, writes:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Such are my sentiments, but to a lesser degree than Dr. Sacks, in relation to my talents, my achievements, and my age. I also hope to (continue to) give something in return for what I have been given. To live the good life; and to establish a legacy for my children. Such is the human spirit in action.