Cancer: The Emperor Has Old Clothes

Mike Verano

"No emperor has the power to dictate to the heart." - Friedrich Schiller

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, refers to cancer as the "emperor of all maladies." This seems a fitting title for an illness capable invading the healthiest of bodies and conquering all in its path with such malevolence that most dare not even whisper its name. In Harry Potter-like fashion, the, "name that shall not be named," has been reduced to simply "the C word."

While cancer is often thought of as a disease of modern life, as Mukherjee points out, it is " of the oldest diseases ever seen in a human specimen—quite possibly the oldest." Since this tyrant has been with us throughout the ages, one might expect that the treatment of it would mirror the miracles of medicine that have led to the pronouncement of the other, often unspoken, word: cure.

The historical record of cancer remedies and treatments reads like a horrific tale of terror and torture. From bloodletting, to the non-anesthetized surgical removal of tumors, early attempts to eradicate the growing menace speak to both the depth of fear it instilled and the dedication of those determined to eradicate the threat once and for all.

We have taken giant leaps forward in the understanding of cancer and moved out of the darkened shadows of exploratory and often deadly interventions into the light of scientifically sound targeted therapies. Despite this, any cancer survivor knows that the confirmation of a cancer within one's body is only the beginning of the dark night of the soul. Personally, I have often repeated the line, "I was never really afraid that I would not survive cancer, but I was convinced that chemotherapy would kill me."

While it would take thousands of years before war was officially declared on cancer, the battle lines were drawn early in human history and the ravages of this war only add to cancer's dark legacy. If one was lucky enough to survive the crude assaults on the body, archaic attempts to literally carve out cancer-free zones, the same fortune may falter in the face of infections in a pre-antibiotic age.

When it comes to cancer and its treatment, what's old is new. Despite astounding medical advances, the disease continues to carry the weight of a death sentence, and its treatment comes at the cost of living cells and tissues. Anyone who has sat through the first round of chemotherapy, and the obligatory recital of the list of possible side effects, most likely leaves with the thought that was pounding in my head when I returned for my second session, "I can't do this anymore."

It's far too easy to throw up our collective hands and raise the white flag of surrender to cancer. With more than just a hint ironic respect for cancer's shape-shifting nature, Mukerjee, at the end of his fascinating work, points out that cancer may be ". . . the new normal—and inevitibly." The question, then, he adds is "not if we encounter this immortal illness in our lives but when." For millions of cancer survivors like myself, that “when” is now.

If history teaches us anything, it is that all empires, and those that rule over them, eventually collapse under the weight of their own vanity. Let us both praise and bury Caesar by exhausting all efforts to strip cancer of its power to rob, pillage and plunder what is most precious – the undying spirit of life that is truly immortal.

Let's do this by living with dignity despite cancer's attempts humiliate us. Let's continue to create unity when cancers tries to isolate us. Let's live from our hearts while cancer confounds the mind. Finally, let's refuse the "new normal" where illness reigns, and instead live the realization that love is the ultimate conqueror and the heart our true home.
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