Many of you may be acquainted with the fact that I had cancer. Many people give it other names: prolonged disease, big C, long illness, malignancy. I believe it is important to call things by their name. Although I got diagnosed last summer, although my tumor is already gone, I am still getting treatment. You are about to learn how and why. I welcome you to this multidimensional ride with me. The journey may be confronting but, as a cancer survivor, I can assure you, it’s all worth it in the end.
1) First step: calling things by their name
Once the anomaly in my breast was found, a medical team gathered all the exams needed, and a report was written. Physicians gave the disease a name: maligne neoplasma van mamma, Dutch for malignant beast cancer. When you want to solve a problem, these are the steps. You gather the evidence, name the situation, and make a plan. But let’s get into imaginary territory here.
Suppose that my illness hadn’t gotten identified. Can you imagine doctors saying, But my dear, don’t you worry about that lump in your breast! Breast cancer doesn’t exist. It’s a hoax! This is where I’d insist. First of all, I feel it. Second, it’s making me sick. Third, many people in the world have been suffering from the same. I’m not alone here. Will you please not make it sound like I’m crazy? Frustration would set in. How come you see a lump in my breast, and you deny further investigation?! I may die from it!
2) Blaming the patient will worsen the issue
Well, yes, we have heard of breast cancer before, but if it was ever a problem, that was long ago, and it’s time we get over it, the physician would finally admit. Why do you need to complain about it so much? Do you think victimization is going to heal you?
By this point, I’d be angry. Could they be implying that having cancer was my fault?! How dare they? I am begging for help here! The only reason I need to repeatedly insist on the problem is your denial of it in the first place! I’d wonder why couldn’t they take my word for it, how could they not empathize with my pain?
Look, yours is a difficult situation, the doctor would concede. But this is an isolated case. Cancer is not a problem in this world. Refrain from using that word. The fact that you go around using the C-word may generate disorder, enrage people, turn them against each other. Look at the turmoil you’re creating.
Luckily, none of this science-fiction actually happened, and I straightforwardly got the help I needed.
3) Before all cells can matter you need to eliminate the sick ones
In cancer, things are not black and white. Because cancerous cells can travel throughout the lymphatic system and bloodstream, they can enter other organs and begin to grow far from the original tumor. By spreading, they become a menace to the whole ecosystem; therefore, you need to treat the entirety of the body and not just the most affected part.
Now, let’s go back to fantasyland and imagine the doctor arguing: Your body has around 30 trillion cells – most of them function perfectly; what is a lump in the context of a healthy organism? What makes you think we’d pay more attention to the cancerous cells (if they exist, that is) than the healthy ones? All cells matter! The ones forming your tumor may be problematic, but they’re just a few rotten apples in a big basket.
By this time, I’d feel wholly dismissed, enraged. If this had happened, I mean.
4) You can’t “get over” chronic illness
Cancer requires a twofold treatment that comprises a systemic approach and a local one. It’s very overwhelming when you think of it at first. The insular approach targets the area of the tumor. By removing it, the medical team hopes to eliminate the main thing that feeds cancer. Surgery is usually followed up by radiotherapy. After surgery, it wouldn’t cross a medic’s mind to tell me to go home and “get over it”. The reason for this is that they know that quick fixes cannot solve complex problems. The tumor was only the visible part of cancer. Instead, patients get told they need to go back to the hospital. Unfortunately, the hardest part of the process is yet to come. Please, bear with me.
5) There’s no healing without pain
The systemic treatment for cancer is chemotherapy, which kills the fast-growing cells that consubstantiate it. The collateral effect of chemo is that it wipes out some healthy cells too. Let’s suppose now that I had persuaded the Draconian doctor of my account to perform surgery on me and remove the tumor, but that he was now trying to dissuade me from going further. You know, all of that chemo and radiotherapy are too much trouble. Think of all the symptoms that will arise from it! It’ll bother you and those around, poor people who have no business in being sick. Imagine the burden it’d be to your partner, your parents, your friends! After all, we have already removed the ‘protuberance’ from your breast! He’d then go on to convince me that removing the tumor had been enough.
I can tell you, friends: chemo is a grinding process. From hair loss to nausea, from physical exhaustion to depression. It’s doable, but hell, it’s uncomfortable. It’s a paradox that the thing that saves you also brings about so much suffering. Still, it’s the most effective remedy known to medicine if you want to prolong a patient’s life.
6) It’s a lifelong process
Because I was once willing to endure my pain, chemo happened, and I am now free of cancer. However, this is not the end of the story. I know that I’ll have “work” to do, possibly, for the rest of my life. No doctor will ever declare me “cured”. There’ll be regular check-ups at the hospital. I’ll have to keep taking medicine for the next years. I will also have to pay extra attention to my overall health: make sure I eat healthy, exercise, and take care of my stress levels and mental health. All of these things impact chronic illness. Does it sound overwhelming? Oh, for sure, it’s a lot. Medicine tells us that once someone has had to deal with cancer, their body may remain more vulnerable, not only to other types of cancer but to other diseases too. This is why I no longer have the luxury to treat my body poorly and ignore the signs it gives me.
7) There will be new knowledge, therefore, new approaches
There’s more. My oncologist told me that it’s been only two years since our hospital started using immunotherapy to treat my type of cancer. Immunotherapy is the latest innovation in cancer therapy, and it falls into the category of a systemic approach. Every three weeks, I get drugs that stimulate my immune system to recognize and fight cancerous cells on its own. This is a revolutionary way to influence my body’s environment so that it undermines disease on its own. I’m so glad that science is always evolving, and that we now have access to a new treatment that is saving so many lives.
8) Whataboutery brings us astray from the point
Every time someone suspects they have cancer, it is all over the news. What about
cardiovascular disease? What about multiple sclerosis? What about HIV? All diseases matter!, my fictional doctor would scream. And by the way, people have been talking about cancer so much lately, that I suspect there are hidden agendas behind it.
What the heck do I, as a cancer patient, have to do with whatever lobbies might have formed to advocate for the cause?, I’d throw back at him. Moreover, is the fight against cancer not something imposed on its patients? Do we have a chance not to fight it?
The doctor gritting his teeth: I heard that those behind the National Association against Cancer are corrupt. They were involved in a fraud. To sum up, there is nothing we can do for you.
9) Punishing the patient will open a pandora’s box
By this point, I might have punched the office table. The coffee mug on the doctor’s desk might have spilled onto his papers. Look what you’ve done, you cancerous one, they would spit, with glaring eyes. They could have called security, but they might have clenched their fist instead and swung it at my jaw. The very person supposed to protect the patient might have become the attacker.
They’re a doctor, the hospital protects them. I might get expelled from the premise with a warning and no treatment. But the conversation will, most probably, not end there. Fictional me will plot for justice.
Real me will do the same. Because, tell me: would you take a doctor who is unwilling to help you seriously? Could you ever respect a person who denied your suffering? A person whose argument not to treat cancer patients was the mischief of others? Would you not question their humanity? Would you not get mad if, on top of that, the one supposed to help you physically assaulted you instead?
10) Still, the reality is stranger than fiction
Does this story sound too Orwellian? You think perhaps, this is a good script for a movie, but it would never happen in real life. As a cancer survivor, I can tell you that reality is stranger than fiction at times. And, despite that, we have no choice but get to the other side: you, the doctor, and me. However, cancer patients with no access to help won’t be able to. I argue that, in a world where all lives are equally important, it is our duty to not leave anyone behind.
To be continued.
(header picture: Miguel Luis)