Dr. Jeff Kane: The valiant battle | TheUnion.com

Dr. Jeff Kane: The valiant battle

For 35 years my medical practice consisted of facilitating support groups for people with cancer and their caregivers. Whether the people who attended group meetings were anxious, depressed, confused, desperate, or peaceful, there was one perspective they all agreed on: living with cancer was not a battle.

Most resented a phrase we see commonly on obituary pages: “… lost his/her valiant battle against cancer.” One man said, “What battle? I wouldn’t know how, and don’t have the energy to fight, anyway. I’m just trying to survive.” A woman said, “I’ve decided to just live as fully as I can with my cancer.”

The people who do see cancer as a battle probably wish to view patients as heroic, as though they were wrestling some mythic monster. That’s one way of describing the work of medical experts, but patients have no such armory. The real heroes are the people who find ways to live with the illness, help their loved ones accept it, pursue the treatment of their choice, no matter how uncomfortable or even unpromising, and who face the prospect of dying sooner than they’d planned. Now, that’s heroics.

I suspect this notion of cancer as a battle stems from our penchant for declaring war on anything we want gone. In the 1960s, when we were shocked to learn that there were poor people in America, President Johnson initiated his War on Poverty. President Nixon developed Wars on Drugs and Cancer, and GW Bush the War on Terror. These wars have been waged for decades now, and there’s still plenty of poverty, drugs, terror, and cancer.

When will we learn that for human predicaments, fighting isn’t a lasting answer? Over two millennia ago, the Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote a book that remains popular, The Art of War. He defined the ideal warrior’s most effective weapon as restraint. “The supreme art of war,” he wrote, “is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

In the cancer world the enemy we can effectively subdue is our own fear. If we were to cure all cancers tomorrow — a miraculous advance I’d be the first to applaud — another disorder would step up. Despite any medical progress we can possibly make, we’ll always be subject to sickness, aging, and death.

We can’t eliminate mortality, but we can relieve the emotions that paralyze us, restricting the fullness of our relationships and our enjoyment of life.

Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.

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