Twenty-three years ago this week, my mother died of a liver cancer that had been eating away at her for more than a decade. She was diagnosed relatively early but treatment modalities were primitive and not terribly effective in cases like hers. Liver cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and bone cancer were, in those days, little less than death sentences.
At the time there were new, experimental treatments cancer specialists were trying to work the kinks out of. When she realized that she was considered terminal, my mother insisted on volunteering for them. My father went along with her, and signed her into the Deaconess Hospital in Boston, which was associated with Sloan-Kettering and the best hospital in New England for cancer research and treatment.
For the next 10 years, she was in and out of the Deaconess undergoing a series of treatments, primarily chemo and radiation therapy. The cancer would go into remission, come back, go away again. She would have a few healthy months, and then it would reappear, sapping her strength. Once it went into remission for almost three years. That was a good time. The doctors said if it stayed away for 5 years, there was a good chance my mom had beaten it for good. We thought – we hoped – she had.
But she hadn’t, of course. A year after that long remission ended, she was dead.
A little over four years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was an early catch but I didn’t know what that meant. I thought I was walking around dead.
I went into the hospital at noon and was in the “recovery room” – a glorified corridor lined with gurneys – by 2pm. I wanted to leave but the nurses wouldn’t let me. They insisted I rest for at least 2 hrs, and as I was still woozy, I let them have their way. By 4.30pm I was out of the hospital and on my way home. The cancer was gone and it hasn’t returned.
I told you all that so I could tell you this:
The surprise – and occasional expression of disgust – engendered by John Edwards’ announcement that his wife, Liz, has bone cancer but that he is not going to abandon his campaign on that account, is rooted, I think, in the old perception that cancer is an automatic death sentence.
It isn’t any more. Even granting that her condition is incurable, it is, by the Edwards’ own statement, “treatable”.