Wednesday, April 25, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0518 - Another day, another cancer, another dilemma

It's one thing to have aha experiences about the cancer process. It's quite another dealing with the apparently personal attacks of this plague on people you know and love.

Over the last twenty years, I've lost all three of my (until that time) surviving grandparents to cancer - lung, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. I've lost an uncle to lung cancer. During that time, my father fought against and won his battle with bladder cancer. I was struck with rectal cancer. And now my aunt is valiantly facing melanoma, having just Monday lost most of her foot in surgical amputation to inhibit the chances of the cancer spreading elsewhere in her body.

At work, among those who have told me about their experiences dealing with cancer, are colleagues whose partners have faced breast cancer and mouth cancer, as well as another colleague still fighting the possibility of recurrent thyroid cancer.

Among friends, the stories of loss to cancer are too numerous to detail - colon cancer, lymphoma, myeloma, leukemia, and lung cancer being just a few.

It's simply everywhere! So coming to a realization that cancer is a process and not a disease, while useful for understanding how things work, pales when faced with the implications of here-and-now, life-threatening diagnoses.

It's all so frustrating! Story after story, I hear about late diagnoses, about family physicians who made poor diagnostic decisions, about treatments gone awry, and the accumulation of personal loss.

Is it any wonder, then, that friends, relatives and acquaintances turn away from the tough struggle to comprehend the plague of cancer-related diseases, instead opting for condolences about God's purpose, the assurance of an after life, or the value of having a "positive attitude"? Frustration and fear are powerful allies in pushing people beyond the brink of coping. The upshot appears to be surrender, denial, intentional ignorance, and platitudes.

I understand this. But some days, I want to scream and shout that there is a better way. I want to yell out that what we need is more information, not less. What we need is better science and technology, not less.

Still, I admit that hope comes in various shapes and forms and that I need not always agree with the source of hope to appreciate its efficacy. I may cringe whenever I witness a retreat from reality, no matter how congenial or comforting the results of that retreat may be, but perhaps that's just me. Personally, I trust my hope will always be built on a solid foundation of knowledge and expertise, whether that expertise be from my own experience or that of others.

How, then, do we practically go about supporting friends and family with cancer?

Robert Buckman has a useful way of describing how support works in his book What You Really Need to Know About Cancer. He calls it the Four-Front: People and Information - personal and professional people, and background and detailed information. We need all four resources when dealing with cancer. We need professional and personal supports from those with experience and expertise and we need an accurate overview and detailed information about cancer and treatment in general and about our specific type of cancer.

But do we need faith and religious assurances too?

Buckman has a very good point about this: "The only safe assumption is that there are no safe assumptions."

The four-front of resources for those facing cancer may mean that sometimes God-talk may be exactly what someone needs, no matter how repugnant it may be to me personally. Personal support in times of crisis may mean supporting someone in exactly the same way they have supported themselves throughout a lifetime's search for meaning. If I cannot provide that kind of support, then, at the very least, I should probably respect the need of the individual and defer to someone else. That doesn't mean I can't help, just not in that particular way.

On the other hand, supporting someone is not a license to evangelize and promote conversion, whether your viewpoint is distinctly religious or secular. I have witnessed this far too many times. For the religious, the comfort of faith is not the same thing as the fear of hell. For the secular, counseling someone to face the facts when pain is their only companion is simply cruel.

So here we are. Cancer everywhere. Dilemmas aplenty. And the necessity of support.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Especially pleased to here about your dad's outcome. Anyone who's raised that many kids deserves a break. Pls. say hi to him and your mom from me the next time you talk.

Way West.