(The Emperor of All Maladies A Biography of Cancer gives a riveting history of the disease, explaining why we haven’t “won” this battle. Do others value Dr. Mukherjee’s writing? It’s won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.)
I sometimes wonder why I call myself “former cancer patient” because I know I’ll battle that disease the rest of my life. If the truth be told, I’m shocked I’m still here after the baleful diagnosis (it didn’t look good). I know, too, the convergence of forces that brought on the disease can repeat. In other words, I don’t harbor misgivings I licked my opponent…… I’ve just bought a reprieve.
Does that mean I’m an inveterate depressive who goes around, waiting for the proverbial axe to fall? Absolutely not. But I’m aware of life’s fragility and giddy in the simple joys I experience each day.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer 9 years ago and I recall that nothing was the same after that. On that fateful day, I was shown my X-ray, whereby the nurse practitioner pointed out the signs of cancerous invasion in the ducts. She went on to say: “Sometimes the cells get smart and figure a way to get out.”
For the first time in my life, I fervently hoped for “stupid.”
I recall going through the next many months, trying to will away the depression that rightfully took me hostage, for I feared THAT would become my downfall. I believed that if I obsessed over cancer cells, they’d come back and multiply, taking root in some new harbor (my bones, my liver, my intestines.)
I was told by friends (and some texts on the subject) that people who become ill with cancer or other auto-immune diseases like MS, share a common characteristic: They are often “pleasers“ who seek to appease others; they bury everything inside. They’re simply being eaten from the inside out….It’s the price they pay for accommodating to things they don’t agree with.
This rationale always made me crazy. I began to think: “What? I brought on my own disease because I don’t speak out enough?” (I do) or “I take on wars that I’d be better off avoiding.” I considered it especially-cruel to saddle a cancer patient with guilt for bringing on her disease.
Now, I’ve been inordinately fortunate, for the cancer that invaded my breast hadn’t metastasized to my bones, tissue, or other organs. So, my cells were “stupid,” after all. Yes, I lost a breast, but I got a new one that looks even better (I’m a “half-full” kind of person.) Better yet, I’ve enjoyed 9 whole years, cancer-free, since that bleak time.
I saw Dr. Mukherjee the other night on a television show where he guest-spoke, about his new book (I clicked in when that program was almost over.) In the last moments, he was asked by a young woman in the audience, how much he believed a person’s psychological condition played in successfully fighting the disease. There it was: The question prompted by the general consensus that one’s emotional state drives the course of cancer.
Dr. Mukherjee answered (and this is a general paraphrasing even though I put it in quote marks): “I have a problem laying responsibility for the outcome of his disease on someone’s psychological state.” He went on to say “Who am I to tell a patient how to fight his disease?” Then again, “Maybe his depression will enable him to recover, because that’s his way of dealing with crises.”
He went on to say: “I’ve known people filled with joy who got cancer, fought it optimistically and died, and I’ve seen others who are serious depressives, go on to live long lives.” In other words, Dr. Mukherjee takes the burden away from the patient who’s already dealing with an impossibly-tough situation: We cancer patients no longer have to “go there,” fighting cancer, with a smile firmly affixed to our lips….
We don’t need to exhort good humor because it may help us heal; furthermore, we don’t need to fight the disease while we simultaneously make others feel better.
Now, all I can say is: “Thank you,” Dr. Siddhartha for debunking a myth that’s plagued us cancer patients for years. The link below explains his book and why it’s important. On the site, reviewer Lynette Wong says: The book reads like a literary thriller with cancer as the protagonist.”
Note the descriptions in the review as to why it’s most readable, and send this post to anyone locked in battle with this disease (family members, friends, as well.) Their burden will be lighter and they’ll bless you for it.
And when you get finished with that, please weigh in by hitting Comment area below…I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on a disease that’s touched all of us in one way or another. Question: ‘Do you think a patient’s attitude affects the course of his disease?’