Over the past hundred years or so, our understanding of how to cure many ailments has dramatically advanced. Now when people go to the doctor, the prescribed treatments usually help without causing further injury. Even surgeries, after a relatively brief recovery period, generally relieve people of pain and other serious problems. Not so with cancer. People with cancer often don't even know they have a potential killer lurking in their bodies. A lump or bump, sometimes not even noticed by the patient, may be the only sign. Yet the treatment is not something that can be overlooked. The treatments for different kinds of cancers and even for the same kind of cancer can vary dramatically, but they are often exhausting and painful cocktails that may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Other treatments are also used, depending on the type of cancer and what it will likely respond to.
Wilfred Sheed wrote of his experience with radiation treatment for oral cancer in his book In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery:
As the radiologist reads off the list of possible side-effects and after-effects, to run concurrently and forever, it's awfully hard to remember that this guy is supposed to be on your side. There he is, about to kill off thousands of your favorite cells, adding up to a large tract of the body that brought you this far, and they call this man a healer! Talk about bombing villages in order to liberate them; talk about napalming whole forests on suspicion. For all anyone knew, I might not even have cancer at this stage. But bomb we must. One can't be too careful.
In A Season in Hell, Marilyn French, who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, wrote this about physicians: "Simply to treat cancer means they must violate the primary tenet of their code: First, do no harm."
As a doctor I have treated cancer patients for many years, but it was not until I had cancer myself that the irony hit home—how people typically begin their cancer treatment much stronger than they end it. It's not that I didn't recognize this fact when I was healthy, but the life-altering nature of the experience as I went through it left me with a much greater understanding of the physical process. For many people, it is the life-saving or life-prolonging treatment regimen, not the cancer, that takes the greatest toll on their body. Of course, cancer left unchecked would eventually cause terrible problems, and I do not mean to denigrate the cancer treatments we currently have available. I am truly thankful to be living during a time when my life can be prolonged by these difficult treatments. Nevertheless, having cancer is hard. It is traumatic for many reasons, one of which is how debilitated one feels during and after the treatment period.
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