Only medical research can beat cancer, and the tragedy of cancer deaths cannot be softened.
The language of cancer is loaded. When you are diagnosed, well-wishers tell you that you can “beat” cancer, that it is merely a blip in what will be a long, fruitful life. People speak of the gifts of cancer, the lessons learned, the good that comes from the bad. Certainly, I can understand why people do this. Cancer is terrifying and just like whistling in the dark on that walk through the cemetery, focusing on gifts and lessons makes the cancer beast a little less scary.
The cancer marketing machines use this spin on feel-good cancer as well. Images of women linking arms as they “beat cancer,” inspires the raising of millions of dollars, some for the good of research and helping people, and too much to line the corporate pockets of disease greed. Out of every $100 raised by the NFL during its breast cancer awareness campaign, for instance, only $11.25 went to the American Cancer Society.
And like the rah-rah phrases of a beatable cancer, these cancer marketing machines often do not honor the real victims of cancer. When Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams asked to wear pink for the entire season, rather than just October, in honor of his mother who had died of breast cancer, the NFL told him no. And when Williams’ teammate Cam Heyward wore eye black in honor of his father’s death from a brain tumor, the League fined him $16,000. Williams and Heyward were telling stories of real people, real losses, and this sad picture would not have furthered the NFL’s marketing campaign. So they were not allowed.
Because of his honest approach to cancer, the comic book character, Deadpool, has become my unexpected hero. Before he morphs into the mutant Deadpool, he is Wade Wilson, a young man, happily living life, in love with a beautiful woman, until he is given the horrible diagnosis of terminal cancer that has invaded most of his vital organs. His girlfriend is quick to take the battle stance, telling him, “I love you, Wade Wilson. We can fight this.” But Wade knows the truth. “You’re right. Cancer’s only in my liver, lungs, prostate, and brain. All things I can live without,” he sagely responds to her battle call.
In this understandable attempt to sugar coat cancer, the patients and their family’s pain and lasting scars are continuously minimized. If only cancer were always so easily beatable, simply a romantic faint on a hot Victorian afternoon, after which the swooning lady is carried to a chaise and revived with the scent of freshly-brewed tea. Cancer does not make sense. It happens and it is hard, even if the patient survives. Treatment leaves lasting scars, and the trauma of a cancer diagnosis and treatment often leaves survivors and their families with an undeniable case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, financial burden, and depression. As Deadpool notes, after losing almost everything to the disease, “Cancer is a s**t show, like Yakov Smirnoff opening for Spin Doctors at the Iowa State Fair kind of s**t show.” And that’s not a good show at all.
The desire to minimize cancer pain is so strong, even the worst of deaths are softened. An April 2016 article detailing the recent death of a young mother from breast cancer shocked me with its softening approach. The article told the story of a young couple, Carrie and Chris. Two weeks after Carrie and Chris brought their son Henry home from the hospital, they discovered that Carrie had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She was 32 years old. For four years Carrie and Chris poured everything into trying to “beat” the cancer, and focused as much time as they could on their son. In March 2016, they received the news that Carrie’s body was giving out, and the couple was devastated. Chris, a man who had devoted himself to his wife, left the world five days before his wife’s death on March 25, 2016. Carrie was buried on what would have been her 36th birthday. Their son Henry was left behind.
Carrie did not beat cancer. Chris was destroyed by the cancer that killed his wife. Henry is left without his parents. This is devastating, destructive and horrifying. Yet, the title of the article is, “Moving On: Another Cancer Angel.” Carrie and Chris did not “move on.” They were destroyed by a disease that decimates over half a million people in the United States alone. I thought about Carrie, Chris, Henry, and Lana, Carrie’s mother who thankfully is still here to raise Henry; the only light of good in this tale of woe. And then I thought of the loved ones of the over 500,000 people who die of cancer in the U.S. each year. Every one of the over 500,000 people who die each year have loved ones, a Chris or two sitting with them, praying they will “beat” the cancer, waiting for results of the latest scan, helping their loved one move from a couch to a bed because cancer has taken away all of their loved one’s strength. Even if each cancer patient who dies has only two loved ones, this means at least 1.5 million lives are wrecked each year by a disease that is supposedly “beatable.”
Cancer patients who are dying are not people who are simply “moving on.” They are empty spaces in people’s lives, tears in the middle of the night, a football player’s drive to smear eye black under his eyes to honor his father’s death during each and every game. As Linda Loman, in the play "Death of a Salesman," demands of her sons as her husband’s life crumbles before them, “He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”
In the same way, people afflicted with cancer are also human beings. They are not faces in a marketing campaign, a person being given a gift or a lesson to be learned. Cancer is no gift. It is a scourge taking more lives and loved ones than diabetes, strokes and Alzheimer’s. (Only heart disease kills more people than cancer every year). The only hope of beating cancer is medical research, and thankfully breakthroughs have allowed more and more cancer patients to live or live longer.
As President Obama proclaimed in his announcement of the Cancer Moonshot during the January 2016 State of the Union Address, “For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.” This is a dream for anyone afflicted with cancer and their loved ones, particularly for those who move on to a metastatic cancer diagnosis. If this dream were to become true, that cancer could be cured once and for all, then perhaps we can talk to cancer patients of beating cancer or learning lessons. But until then, cancer remains a tragedy in too many people’s lives. And because this tragedy goes on, attention must be paid.