Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Deny Thy Disease, or Embrace It?

     There's a book going around my circle of friends called The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. B read it a couple of weeks ago. Then we went to a party over the weekend, and another woman started talking about it -- she'd read it too and really loved it. B had the book with her, because she had borrowed it from another person who happened to be at this party and she was going to return it. Instead, one of the guys got interested, so he ended up taking home the book to read.

     I have not read it. I have no interest in reading it. I don't know why anyone would want to read  it. It's all about cancer.

      Nevertheless, I was curious and wanted to know what was so great about the book. First of all, B told me, it's really well written. Dr. Mukherjee was a Rhodes scholar; he works as a cancer physician at Columbia University; and the book won a Pulitzer prize. He weaves in the history of cancer, the experiences of patients, the struggle of doctors to find a cure, along with the science of cancer and how it works.

     So, do they know how it works? I asked.

     Not really, she said. They've made many discoveries, and developed a number of weapons in the battle against cancer. But after reading the book, it doesn't seem to B that they're anywhere near finding a cure for cancer.

     She reported that they have made more progress on some cancers, less on others. For example, they have found a cure for the blood cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma, not because they know how the cancer works, but because they figured out how this particular cancer is spread and how to  stop it. As she knows, my brother died of Hodgkin's lymphoma, in 1964. Coincidentally, one of my daughter's best friends contracted Hodgkin's lymphoma a couple of years ago. She had some treatments, including chemotherapy. She temporarily lost her hair. But in the end she was cured. She is now a medical resident at a hospital in New York.

     But that's one of the reasons why I do not want to read this book. I already know that Hodgkin's lymphoma is now curable, when before, it wasn't. Do I really want to read all about how the disease that killed my brother, and almost destroyed our family when I was a teenager, is now a perfectly curable malady that is, yes, an inconvenience, but no longer a death sentence.

     Don't get me wrong. I'm glad they've made progress on cancer and found a cure for Hodgkin's. I'm happy for those people like my daughter's friend who contract the disease today, and live to tell the tale. And I think it's really great that my daughter's friend is now a doctor -- and that she recently got married. But do I want to have my nose rubbed in it?

     My whole family has a history of cancer. We have strong hearts. But my mother got breast cancer in her 50s, and ultimately died of cancer, although she managed to soldier on until age 89. My dad also died of cancer, although, again, not till late in life. And one of my sisters has had breast cancer. I figure that cancer is gonna be what gets me in the end. My time will come, eventually. Do I want to wallow in the details now? I don't think so.

     The woman who started talking about the book at the party, who thought it was a masterpiece, is younger than I am. She's only 50. But she herself has had breast cancer. She found the book riveting, she wants to study cancer and find out all she can about the disease. I think she feels that it empowers her.

     Not me. I'd start in on the book, and I'd be reading about cancer symptoms, and I guarantee you, when I lie down to go to sleep at night, I'd start feeling a pain in my chest or a lump in my throat, and I would absolutely convince myself that I have cancer, probably a very advanced stage of a very aggressive cancer, and that I'll be undergoing chemotherapy within a week, and I'll soon be weak and emaciated, with scars zippering my chest, and no hair on my head, and weighing in at about 95 pounds. Just like my brother.

     I didn't explain this whole thing to the breast-cancer survivor who likes this book. I just told her that I didn't want to read the book. I didn't want to know all there is to know about cancer. I want to stick my head in the sand and keep it there for as long as possible.

     Look, I'm not in denial. I gave up smoking a long time ago; I eat my antioxidents and avoid the nitrates in bacon and hot dogs. I try to get some exercise, and I've had a couple of colonoscopies thank you very much. I do what I can to avoid cancer. But beyond that, what's the benefit in reading all about the disease and the horrors it brings to people's lives?

     I told my friend I wouldn't mind reading a book about heart disease. For me, that's an intellectual exercise. But cancer cuts too close to the bone.

     She thought I was crazy. She actually said that, in kind of a friendly but dismissive way, "You're crazy."

     Am I crazy? 


Roberta said...

I get it. I would not be able to read it either. I am a firm believer in the "Ignorance is Bliss" factor.

Douglas said...

No, you're not crazy (though you might have a trace of hypochondria in your brain, as most of us do).

I would probably read the book if there was a history of cancer in my family. But that's me. Instead, it is high blood pressure and strokes that runs through my paternal line. Of course, that's controllable now but it took a long list of patriarchs in their middle 60's before that came about. My father and one of his brothers beat the odds and made it past 83 because they were aware of the history and their doctors could now treat it better than saying "take it easy and lay off the salt).

Mac n' Janet said...

I'm with you, I don't want to wallow around in a disease. I'm tired of watching sports events that have been turned into advertisements for various cancers. I take care of myself and hope for the best and don't want to spend my time worrying about what I might get.

JBO said...

I always wonder why we have to determine that an elderly person died of cancer. We HAVE to die of something. What every happened to "they lived a good life and died of old age"?

Linda said...

I haven't been around cancer much and if I had someone close to me with cancer, then I would want to read the book to gather information so I would know what I'm talking about with doctors and hospitals. However, it sounds like you already have all the necessary information, so why would you want to read the book. Nothing crazy about that.

Olga said...

I understand your point of view, but I am more a "Know your enemy" kind of person about medical conditions.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post, Tom. I understand why you would feel the way you do. I think your emphasis on the positive health measures one can take to maintain health as much as possible is most important. I work hard at all those things -- healthful eating, daily exercise, no smoking.

On the other hand, since high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease are rampant in my family, I do read things about how to minimize the risks of those. (Every member of my immediate and extended family elder generations have died of sudden cardiac death except for my paternal grandfather who died of Hodgkins lymphoma in 1963.) As long as one is healthy and living a healthy lifestyle, a head in the sand about various disease is just fine.

I get worried when I see some of our neighbors who have diabetes eating like there is no tomorrow, drinking and watching their blood sugar climb without a care. If someone has a disease that can be managed, it just makes sense to learn every you can about management and then do it.

Kay Dennison said...

I'd read it. Given my weird medical history, I read a lot on medical issues. I opt to be informed because I know that anything can happen and it probably will.

June said...

I don't think you're crazy at all. Or else I am . . . and that thought weakens my statement . . . because I might be. :-o
Hodgkins killed my father too, when he was 48 and I was 10. Years later, one of my less favorite cousins got it and got well. Like you, I don't want to hear about how it's a nothing of a disease now. Not after the life I've had because of it.
When I had breast cancer, I read about it, and that was good. Now, so far as I know, I no longer have breast cancer, or any kind of cancer but one NEVER KNOWS, does one...?) and I don't need to borrow trouble.

schmidleysscribblins.wordpress.com said...

No you are not crazy. Most of us will die from some form of cancer so why dwell on it until you have to face it. I did a lot of reading on the blood cancers this past year because I was being tested for CML, plus my sister is in remisssion fom NHL. Ohterwise, forget it. Dianne

PS I tried to post earlier, but was stymied by something. D.

#1Nana said...

Okay, I won't read it either...please pass the trashy crime novel, thank you very much.

Linda Myers said...

I won't read it, either. I already worry about illnesses even though I'm healthy at this moment. Good that it's there for those who want to, though.

Deb said...

I'm a 7 year breast cancer survivor, and I'm not remotely interested in reading that book.

The thing about cancer is this...it's also incredibly random.

There was no history in my family whatsoever, and I was as healthy as could be when diagnosed. No smoking, little alchohol, healthy diet, at the gym 5 mornings a week. In my family, we usually die in our beds in our late 90s. I don't know why I drew the short stick, but at age 42, I did.

There are so many pesticides and chemicals in our food, water, clothing, air, and in our homes and cars and environment that for my sanity's sake, I had to surrender my anxiety about a cancer recurrance. Heart disease and Alzheimer's are equally worrisome in my opinion.

I get some exercise but not enough, I don't smoke, I'm carrying a little extra padding but I eat mostly organic produce and dairy and meats, yadda yadda. But there is no way I am not having real cream with my coffee, and by God I am having chocolate, or a cookie, or my fave at least once a week and often more than that!

Do what you can to take reasonably good care of yourself physically and mentally. But honestly, it's equally important to live well and not let your mind worry about paying a bill that may never come due. Something will get us all in the end - and if we're age 89 when it happens, aren't we lucky!?

Anonymous said...

I have not read the book. If I can find a copy, yes I will take the time to read it. Am I stupid to want to read an interesting book? Where ignorance is bliss, is it folly to be wise?' I had arranged for a speaker fm NS Breast Screening at a International Womens Day I promised the speak er I would go for a mamogram. The Drs found a lump so small I did not lose my breast.six weeks of radiation. Then I had a little pain that wouldn't go away I remember reading about Gilda Ratner and ovarian cancer. It took time to get doctors to understand this was not normal for this middle aged woman. Finally, the test results revealed I had aggresive ovarian cancer. Followed by urgent operation and four months of chemo therapy. That was in 2001. Yes, I am ten years cancer free. I don't wallow in being a cancer survivor. I celebrate being a survivor.
We are still losing far too many people, people we love and people and we don't like very much
and people we don't know at all. I think every person we lost to cancer brings us one step closer to finding a bit of a cure for cancer. An advancement with Hodgkins Disease may lead to a discovery in Prostrate or lung cancer, and the discovery there can lead to advancement is treating breast cancer.
I would much rather be a beautiful cancer survivor then a woman dying from cancer.