Friday, April 2, 2010


I doubt we’ll make much progress in treating the "whole" cancer patient until we confront these three common, profound, and subtle cultural misperceptions about the disease. I say “cultural” because healthcare practitioners as well as rank-and-file citizens share these notions. They are:

1) Cancer means doom.
For the great majority of people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it doesn’t mean doom at all. It’s certainly no picnic (“Not for sissies,” said a support group member), but for most people it’s a chronic illness, a challenge to live with. Over ten million Americans have or have had cancer and are leading regular lives.

2) Cancer is a tumor.
Sure, part of it is a tumor (or, in the case of leukemia, circulating abnormal cells). Considering what people suffer from, though, a substantial portion of cancer is the emotional tumult it causes. Treating tumors without treating the emotionally suffering person is doing exactly half a job. It’s remarkable—stunning, astonishing!—that so many practitioners don’t recognize this. In fact, many people with cancer don’t recognize it; some deny it and others suspect that their emotional roller coaster is a sign of mental illness rather than a normal concomitant of cancer. Emotional suffering is so native to cancer that support services must eventually be considered as much a part of cancer therapy as chemo, radiation, and surgery.

3) Cancer affects individuals.
Nope. One person carries the tumor, and everyone around that person is affected with their version of that cancer. Relatives and friends can become angry, withdrawn, frantic, guilty, and overworked. It is not unusual for caregivers to suffer more than the identified patient, and to get sick themselves. Everyone around the person who has cancer needs to be considered for treatment, including children. No, especially children.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for voicing these, especially 2 and 3. (My husband's cancer was quite deadly, so it's hard to acknowledge 1. The emotional pain from cancer is quite intense, for the patient and the family. While my husband no longer suffers from cancer (he died), I still carry it with me.