I’ve spent the month of March, so far, recuperating from surgery for colon cancer. You read a lot when you’re getting over surgery—and, if you’re like me, you watch a lot of “Law and Order” reruns (preferably, any episode that includes the late Jerry Orbach)—and one of the subjects I’ve been reading about is, no surprise, cancer.
Sometimes, the reading is a help. People who have been down this road know things about it that I don’t, and some of them are things I need to know. But the accounts of cancer treatment I’ve read have some problems. One in particular bothers me.
Here it is: Everywhere I turn these days, I read about how people battled or fought cancer, and won. The military metaphor sounds apt: this is a deadly enemy that wants to see me killed—but I’m supposed to kill it instead, and thereby win the day for my side. Only it doesn’t work like that. I’m no soldier fighting an enemy army. I’m more like the battlefield, with both sides—the doctors on the one hand, the disease on the other—lobbing artillery shells into my gut. The doctors are the real soldiers; they’re actively fighting the disease. And the disease is certainly active: cancer cells may not exercise conscious choice, but they behave like an intelligent force that plots and pursues destruction.
In the midst of all that activity, patients are pretty much passive. The disease makes its moves; the docs make theirs: my job is to sit there and take it, to be the territory over which they fight. So, every time I go to the hospital for another test or injection or appointment, I feel a little less human, a little more like an object rather than a subject. I wish it were otherwise: being a soldier is better than being a patient. But that isn’t the way the system works.
To put it another way, cancer treatment is like medical treatment more generally, only more so. Patients tell doctors how they feel, and the doctors do things to them, first to figure out what’s wrong and later to fix it. Watch “House,” and you’ll see what I mean: on that show as, often, in real life, the patient’s job is to lie in a hospital bed, throw up, and bleed. The doctors monopolize the action. That’s a pretty good deal for the doctors. For patients, not so much.
I don’t think this is anyone’s fault. Cancer treatment is what it is—the doctors do what they do because they’re trying to give people like me the best possible shot at survival. It’s not their fault that the best treatments consist of doctors doing things to patients, not patients doing things for themselves. Still, while that state of affairs may be unavoidable, I don’t have to like it.
Other patients can battle their diseases if they like. Me, I want to be more engaged in my battles. If I can’t do that here, if I have to sit back and let other forces make war on my body, maybe that means I need to find another fight. Preferably, one that gives me more of a job to do.