“Death is not the worst evil, but rather when we wish to die and cannot.” Sophocles
Last weekend we visited some friends and had afternoon tea with them. The company was pleasant, the food agreeable, the conversation lively, laughter plentiful and time passed very quickly indeed. To share some food with friends while talking about everything and nothing is one the choicest pleasures in life. I revelled especially in their company because one of them is recovering from cancer. The treatment knocked him about a little and the big “C” is always a word to sober one, but we are all confident that he is well over the worse of it and he will be fully cured.
Cancer affects one in every three persons born in developed countries and is a major cause of sickness and death in the world. The disease has been described since ancient times, but until recently, it used to be death sentence. Significant improvements in cancer treatment have been made since the middle of the 20th century, mainly through a combination of timely and accurate diagnosis, selective surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy with drugs. Such advances actually have brought about a decrease in cancer deaths (at least in developed countries), and grounds for further optimism are seen in laboratory investigations into elucidating the causes and mechanisms of the disease.
Cancer is no longer the dreaded fatal disease that people in the past called the “accurséd blight”. One is diagnosed and treated for cancer nowadays and in many cases is cured of their disease. In fact, some cancers have a much better prognosis than other, non-cancerous disorders. For example, a woman with cancer of the breast has a better chance of surviving her disease with better quality of life than a patient with cirrhosis of the liver, one of the consequences of alcohol abuse. My point is that being diagnosed with cancer this day and age is like being diagnosed with any other disease and if one maintains a good, positive attitude, has all the recommended treatments and is sensible about their regime and lifestyle, in most cases one can conquer one’s disease. Cancer should carry no stigma, as was very much the case in the past.
And yet, one of the clouds on the sunny day of the lunch with my friends was a little comment made during its course, that was said casually, as if it didn’t really matter: “Thanks for being here, it’s good to see you being here as if nothing had changed. We’ve missed quite a few of our friends ever since we told them about the cancer.” I laughed and replied, that of course nothing had changed… Initially, the import of the comment eluded me, but a couple of moments later I realised what he had meant. Some of their friends had been alienated by the concept of him suffering from the dreaded disease. They saw him as a man doomed, a “moriturus”, hence their reluctance to come and visit. Amusement battled with anger, bemusement with annoyance, astonishment with pity, all directed against these stupid people!
Of course nothing had changed in my relationship with my friends, or perhaps something had changed. The frequency of my visits, which I would endeavour to make more frequent. Even more than before I need to make my friend with cancer understand that he is the same person, he is my friend and I will do all in my power to give him any support he needs during this time of crisis. He needs me more than before now, perhaps. Stay away because he is sick? What a ridiculous concept! Stigmatise him? This day and age?
Underlying this of course, is the fear that many people harbour of death. Cancer is still equated in most people’s minds with doom, death and demise. Most people in the West have so divorced themselves from the idea of death and dying that to be near someone who is dying or dead is a repulsive idea. But this is another big topic to be considered at a later time…
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