Is There Just One Cancer?


It's easy to identify with others who share our kind of cancer, but what about the rest?

Cancer, by its very nature, is an isolating disease. It's an intimate confrontation between a relentless cellular anomaly and our own bodies. Some people prefer to think of it as a battle or a journey as a way to better identify it. Any way you look at it, the word "cancer" packs a disturbing punch and triggers a good deal of adverse emotion in many people. Around the world, millions of us are shaken by its presence every year. It spares no gender or ethnicity and strikes young and old alike.

As with any human disaster that befalls us, one way we can wrap our heads around something so huge and devastating is by breaking it down into smaller units. We can immediately identify it as a disease that assaults three basic groups: men, women and children.

With as many as 200 types of cancer being identified worldwide, it's easy to understand how different factions have developed over the years, each supporting a limited coalition of survivors.

As a man with breast cancer, I have the opportunity to know firsthand what it's like to live in a minority group. My cancer is considered to be an "orphan disease."

According to U.S. criteria, that's a disease that affects fewer than 200,000 people. With only about 2,500 men being diagnosed with male breast cancer annually in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society, we are definitely at the low end of that scale. An orphan disease can also be a disease that has not been supported by the pharmaceutical industry because it provides little financial incentive to make and market new medications to treat or prevent it.

As we create these partitions between types and stages of cancer, I wonder sometimes if this disconnection is a positive trend. Can separation aid us or hinder us in our hope to find some sort of cure for all cancers one day?

"Balkanization" is a geopolitical term used to describe the process of fragmentation or division of a region or state into smaller regions or states that are often hostile or uncooperative with one another. Balkanization is a result of foreign policies creating fragmentation, as has happened in the Balkan Peninsula, a geographic area in southeastern Europe. The region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains that stretch from the Serbian-Bulgarian border to the Black Sea.

So, are we in danger of Balkanizing cancer?

Being a male with breast cancer here in Arizona, my live interaction with other men who share my disease has been zero. We have no support groups. Statistically, I may be one of a handful of male breast cancer survivors sprinkled around this area of the state. Thankfully, we have the Internet to connect us and it's a wonderful tool for communication and comradery through several organizations supporting men with cancer in their breasts. (I have links to six of them here).

Regardless of what type or stage or grade of cancer we have, the whole is perhaps more significant than the many parts, if each of us represents one of those parts. It's easy (and important) to collaborate with others in our group of survivors. And sometimes it's easy to forget that we're all in this cancer club together. Hopefully, as we push forward with that common goal of a cure, it can be gratifying to know that we have each, individually, contributed to a universal cancer commitment; a sort of "unified field theory" of cancer that may one day in the not too distant future, give us a cure for this disease.

Astronaut Bruce McCandless, who made the first untethered free flight by using the Manned Maneuvering Unit, said that a unique aspect of flying in space is realizing there are no visible borders between places. There is just one cancer, and we're all in this together. If we think of cancer as a disease with no boundaries and no fences here on Earth, it becomes easier to envision someone we've never met in some far away country and with a different cancer than our own - celebrating a cure with the rest of us.

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