Monday, June 24, 2013


"You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one"
John Lennon

I have to confess that I was surprised to learn that the War on Cancer was started by, none other than, Richard Nixon. Actually, it's more historically accurate to say that in 1971, while taking a break from promising to end real war in Vietnam, and dabbing his sweaty lip, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act.

The introduction to the Act reads as follows:
Findings and Declaration of Purpose
SEC. 2.
(a) The Congress finds and declares:
(1) that the incidence of cancer is increasing and cancer is the disease which is the major health concern of Americans today;
(2) that new scientific leads, if comprehensively and energetically exploited, may significantly advance the time when more adequate preventive and therapeutic capabilities are available to cope with cancer;
(3) that cancer is a leading cause of death in the United States;
(4) that the present state of our understanding of cancer is a consequence of broad advances across the full scope of the biomedical sciences;
(5) that a great opportunity is offered as a result of recent advances in the knowledge of this dread disease to conduct energetically a national program against cancer;
(6) that in order to provide for the most effective attack on cancer it is important to use all of the biomedical resources of the National Institutes of Health; and
(7) that the programs of the research institutes which comprise the National Institutes of Health have made it possible to bring into being the most productive scientific community centered upon health and disease that the world has ever known.
(b) It is the purpose of this Act to enlarge the authorities of the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health in order to advance the national effort against cancer.

A worthy effort for sure that has clearly helped create more survivors like myself. It also turned the nation's attention toward what was the "leading cause of death in the United States" in 1971. Unfortunately, 40 years later, in 2011, cancer was still the leading cause of death in adults ages 45-64*.

Despite never using the term "war on cancer," the tone and imagery certainly hint at an all-out assault. The "attack" was going to be unleash the National Institute of Health, which was given carte blanche to use any means necessary in their fight against the "dread disease."

It's not hard to imagine the upbeat, can-do, spirit that must have been a part of putting together this Act. After all it was 1971; we had conquered space, Walt Disney World conquered Florida, Tony Orlando and Dawn conquered the pop charts with Knock Three Times, and Richard Nixon conquered common sense by installing a tape recording system in the oval office.

Yet, despite the "full-steam ahead" attitude, I can't help but wonder who the pacifist was that snuck in item number two, and referenced the possibility of coping with cancer. The idea that we might have to pull out of another war could not have been popular. However, the insight that resources should also be devoted toward "therapeutic capabilities," certainly sets the stage for a quality of life that includes cancer.

I was eleven years old the day this war began. Of course I had no way of knowing at the time that thirty-eight years later I would be counted as a victim, warrior, survivor? (I not even sure what to call myself anymore.) I am sure, however, that my pacifist roots were already growing strong, even back then, as I clearly remember groovin' to John Lennon's album Imagine; take that Tony Orlando and Dawn.

* source CDC 2011

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Out of the Mouths of Babes

"All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
When one adopts a pacifist stance toward the war on cancer the idea of telling "war stories" takes on a new dimension. From the heroic to the horrific, cancer survivors can tell stories that will melt the heart like any Mitch Albom novel, or send Steve King-like shivers down the bravest of spines. The challenge is communicating a healthy sense of respect for the trials and tribulations encountered when facing a life-altering illness, while at the same time honoring the miracle of life, even if that life includes a serious illness.

I found myself facing this challenge this past weekend during a visit with our granddaughter, Elizabeth Grace. Inquisitive like most five-year-olds, she was engaging my wife in a conversation about health and illness. This, on the heels of an in-depth discussion about the wonder that is chocolate milk. Oh to be five again. While quizzing my wife about her health history, Elizabeth asked if she had ever had chicken pox. When my wife responded yes, Elizabeth went on to ask is she had ever had cancer, because chickenpox and cancer are something you don't want to get. Kathy responded that she had not but "Grandpa did, remember?" This started an avalanche of questions that Kathy handled with grandmotherly care.

Tipped off to the conversation, I was prepared as I drove Elizabeth down to the dock for a boat ride. The questions came quickly, “How did you get cancer, how do they treat cancer, will it come back?” Then the heart wrenching, to the point, comment of, "I glad you don't have it anymore."

I learned from our brief, yet very meaningful, conversation that there is a Charlie Brown episode in which, in the words of Elizabeth, "Charlie Brown's girlfriend gets cancer and has to wear a scarf because she lost her hair." I also learned that good ol' Charlie Brown takes up for his girlfriend when other kids make fun of her bald head. This seemed like a good opening for the cancer pacifist in me to respond with some pearl of wisdom regarding how we treat others, even those that hurt us. When asked what I would have done if someone had made fun of me when I had no hair, I replied that I would confront the person the way Charlie Brown did and point out that it's not nice to make fun of other people. Elizabeth agreed, but added that if someone had said that to me she would probably "beat them up."

The conversation left me reflecting on the impact of cancer, and any serious life event, on our loved ones. I thought about how the reflex to defend, and sometimes avenge, the hurt we watch people we care about endure seems so ingrained. It's clear to me that the response of anger comes out of a loving place; which is why I understand that a pacifist's approach is not for everyone and would never suggest that anyone drop the fight instinct unless it felt right for them. It made perfect sense to me when, after counseling a recently diagnosed cancer survivor, (the American Cancer Society tells us that we become survivors on the day we receive our diagnosis) she said, "I've told my oncologist I want a better name than cancer survivor, something more along the lines of Cancer Warrior or Cancer Ninja.

So it was that I spent the rest of the day that day with my granddaughter with a huge smile on my face; picturing my little darling, Elizabeth Grace, beating down some mean-spirited bully in defense of her grandpa's bald head. Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.