We have now been in this intense war against cancer for over 40 years and in many ways we still are losing. We have won some battles and some battles looked as though we were winning until that cancer enemy managed to sneak up behind us and have that last laugh. But, we have also had our victories, so many victories that soon there will be 12 million cancer survivors alive to tell their story.
A negative stigma still surrounds many cancer survivors. Far too many people still fear us, judge and ignore us when they find we have cancer. Some survivors have a more difficult ride than others. Lung cancer survivors are blamed for their cancer whether of not they ever smoked a cigarette (not that anyone should ever be blamed). Breast cancer survivors are sometimes hailed as warriors. The bottom line is simple; we all are warriors, struggling for our life, dignity and the opportunity to grow a little older.
But, there have been changes. President Nixon’s declaration of war against cancer was an important change. It began the slow process of starting to defeat this enemy, but we remain very much in the dark ages both with treatment options and with attitudes. About ten years ago the psychiatrist Jimmie Holland wrote the seminal book, The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty. Since then she is often referred to “the mother of psycho-oncology”. Her work is responsible for conversations, publicly and more importantly changes in awareness about how to best support a friend or loved one fighting cancer.
We now see major news media talking about emotional support that helps, hurts, and heals people with cancer. Not only do we now hear about cancer research and discoveries, but we also hear about the human side of cancer. Thank you, Dr. Holland.
The other great person who gets little acknowledgment but has contributed much to improving the lives of cancer survivors is Betty Ford. She made it okay for the to talk about cancer.
The numbers of cancer survivors will continue to grow and we have been given the emotional liberation that will allow us to tell our story. Now we need to go out and tell our story and teach our neighbors (the civilian population) how to give us the support and compassion we need to flourish and win our war.
Joel T Nowak MA, MSW