(02 June 2020)
Old age is the most potent, and common, carcinogen you will ever be exposed to. It combines with all the other substances that enter our bodies and turns them loose to do the damage they do. In a perverse and bizarre fashion, the increased incidences of cancer result from the successes of modern medicine.
Rather than hang our heads in sadness, we could point exultantly at our senior citizens and rejoice at the news that we have conquered smallpox, beaten measles, cured tuberculosis, and will soon put the novel coronavirus to rest. We extended our average life expectancy and now live long enough to have a good chance of getting cancer.
If that’s not reason to break out the bubbly, I don’t know what is. At least in theory. In actual practice, a cancer diagnosis will turn your life around and spin it off sideways. Most of us don’t see it coming. It sneaks up, and when it bites, it chomps off a good chunk of your mind. It takes you by surprise even when you know that nearly half of all Canadians can expect to be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. One of them isn’t supposed to be you.
I’m looking in the mirror when I say this. It wasn’t a thing I ever thought would happen to me. Everyone who smokes knows about lung cancer. I did. I didn’t think it would happen to me, and I was right. It didn’t. There are about 200 other types of cancer, most resulting from occupational and environmental exposures. I got one of them instead. I may never know what specific exposure triggered it, but something did.
It’s been about four months now since Lynne and I sat in the Arkell Medical Centre and our doctor asked how I was feeling. I said fine, but I don’t think I’m out of the woods yet. She looked at me with eyes full of kindness and said no, you’re not.
If you are ever going in for one of these chats, be sure to bring someone reliable with you. Like Lynne, for example, if she’s not busy on the morning of your appointment. Even before we went in, she thought of things to ask. She brought a note pad and wrote things down. As much as you try to pay attention, you get distracted by words that sound like you’re hearing them for the first time. A lot of them, you are.
From the moment you sit down for one of these consultations, you need to know you are not alone. When there’s a pandemic raging outside, you can feel that way. Even if your favorite folk can’t get up close and personal with you in the doctor’s office, or the hospital, they are still there.
They might not be able to hold your hand in the chemo room, but they can hang out in the parking lot. Standing with them is the full weight of the Canadian health care system. It’s not perfect, but it’s there and we shouldn’t take it for granted. If we pay attention to the stories floating around the edge of the CBC News, we’ll see what happens when we do.
A family in British Columbia thought they could save a bundle of money by opting out of the provincial health insurance. They were in good health, they thought, and the rules allowed them to do it. They may have forgotten to read the small print where it says that once out, they stay out for 12 months. Sadly, the man of the house was struck by colon cancer. Within three months, he ran up $22,000 in medical bills.
In her book The First Cell, Azra Raza gives a brief outline of the financial burden cancer inflicts on Americans. “Among the 9.5 million new cancer cases diagnosed during a fourteen-year period in America” she writes, “almost half (42.4 per cent) had lost all their life savings within two-plus years.” This should never happen in a civil society.
Canadian journalist Alanna Mitchell wrote Malignant Metaphor: confronting cancer myths, a memoir about her experience with family members who went through cancer treatment. It’s available as an e-book from the library. Or it will be after I return it on June 16. There will be more about this book in future columns.
“We fear,” Mitchell writes, “that cancer is three irreconcilable things all at once – inevitable, preventable, and deserved. Logically, we know it can’t be all three.” She’s talking about public perceptions, and these often contain grains of credibility. It sounds a bit harsh to say it’s deserved, but this ties into preventable, which is rooted in lifestyle choices such as smoking and working with arsenic. Inevitability is rooted in statistics.
Cancer might be probable when you get to the other side of 70, but it isn’t inevitable. The only certainty is that when you walk out of the doctor’s office you will have blanked out nearly everything you heard her say.