One of the things you learn really fast when you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer is how many other people out there have cancer, or know someone (or, more tragically, a few someones) who does.
There are lots of ’em. Like, shitloads.
Literally, there are hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone – all ages, races, genders, and types – who are suffering and fighting and succumbing together against this disease (hell, any number of diseases). And if they all have this thing —
— like, if they’re all packed aboard this ginormous boat that’s been hit by some giant cancerous iceberg, and the ship is going down faster for some than others, but everyone is hoping chemo or radiation or some clinical trial or even reiki and herbs can at least slow the proverbial sinking the Titanic, if not melt the evil iceberg completely —
— then there are hundreds of thousands of other people who desperately love them (or, hopefully, at least like them) who will end up taking care of them and be ravaged in all sorts of profound ways of their own.
Hundreds and hundreds of thousands people, we’re talking about. Millions of human beings across the planet. The National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 8 million people in the United States alone have had the disease. (on a website that could use some help, by the way, but here: http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/all.html).
As of the 2009 census, there are roughly 8, 392,000 people living in the five boroughs of New York City http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/census/popcur.shtml . As a visualization trick, the next time you’re walking the streets of any borough in NYC, as a resident or a visitor, imagine that each and every person you see has cancer of one kind or another, and will directly affect the lives of someone (or, often, many someones around them) as they fight their cancer. It’s then that it starts to hit you how vast an epidemic this really is.
The entire population of New York City.
That’s. Fucked. Up.
Seriously! Not only is it crazy tragic, it’s so fucking wrong.
I’ve had close friends who have had cancer. Family. Peers. Some who have lived with it, some who have conquered it, and some who have died from it. I have friends who have lost parents, children, mates, and close friends of theirs a to the disease, and whose lives are now permanently transformed by the entire experience. And yet, somehow, it never really struck me how pervasive it was, until mom’s diagnosis.
When I first started taking mom to Memorial Sloan-Kettering, a research hospital devoted entirely to cancer care and study, and its outpatient chemotherapy center, I could not get over just how many people on too many floors were fighting some variation of the disease, alone or surrounded by visitors full of well-meaning gifts and words of hope (or doom, depending on who you spoke too). Nor could I get over the number of doctors, nurses, clinicians, and support staff it took to take care of all of us, and the millions of dollars of real estate we were collectively filling. All that energy, intellect, love, and brick and mortar devoted to one devastating word and all it entails. Madness. http://www.mskcc.org/
Within minutes of posting my first blog entry, I got two dozen replies across various media platforms and nearly all of them had a similar story to share: someone they knew and loved (and for too many, several someones) have or had cancer.
I blather on like this, over and over, hitting the same beats on the head simply to point out: when it comes to contracting and managing cancer, or helping someone who has, I’m not special. Or unique. Neither is mom.
As a matter of fact, our plight is tragically common. Everyday. Normal, even. She’s just one more woman with lung cancer. I’m one more man suddenly thrust into the roll of caretaker.. This happens all the time, every day of the week.
And that’s horrible on just about every level I can think of.
That just shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be “normal” or “common” (unless biology has determined that it should be, and I’m not so convinced that it’s just biology driving these numbers). And if it is normal, and every day, and cancer is just an accepted part of day to day living in the modern world, and if we’re so generally immune to its affects until it touches us not just personally but really personally – then I’d argue something is terribly wrong with us as a people (and even a species).
I mean, I know I’m narcissistic and self-involved — I just started a blog, for chrissakes — but to think that I’ve been so dismissive of something so huge for so long even when it’s touched me tangentially suggests I really have to rethink my priorities and channel my energies differently, in a more meaningful and humane way.
I’m sure I’ll tackle the ins-and-outs of universal health care and environment and smoking and the impact of industry and media and marketing and lifestyle and what-have-you on our health in other posts, but more than anything, what I really hope any who are reading this now do is just think about the numbers above and contemplate what they mean for all of us, as a society, and a collection of communities connected to each other by geography, if nothing else (and that’s doesn’t even begin to tackle the numbers of folks with other diseases, like diabetes or AIDS).
Because when you hear doctors tell your mother that she’s got lung cancer, and that it’s bad — that it’s spread throughout her torso into her gland, and skeleton, and breast — and you really let that sink in –
— and then you watch your mother, who’s taken care of you and loved you your whole life, more than you imagined anyone ever could — hear the diagnosis, barely processing the words that have just hit her like a freight train before breaking down in the wheelchair she’s been confined to for weeks because she can’t breathe– well, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the truth of the matter.
Certainly I couldn’t, anyway.
(Thank god I’m good with an iPhone notepad. Kept me busy and focused during the diagnosis, and the strong, efficient hand mom needed right then and there. I’m good in a crisis that way).