My son mentions a book written by a New Yorker writer and medical doctor, Atul Gawande, about the failure of his profession to adequately address and treat the needs of the elderly. One anecdote, in particular, stood out in my son’s description. It concerned a patient who had just been informed that he has terminal cancer. He is asked by his oncologist what he desires most in his remaining days. The patient says, and I paraphrase, “I just want to eat ice cream and watch football games on TV.”
All too often we hear of heroic battles to fight cancer, as if we patients were armed, ready, and able to vanquish the dreaded foe. This being America, we worship those who “win” their contests. Look at him. He survived. As for the “losers,” defeat can be reduced to the absence of will. He or she lacked “the right stuff,” the requisite disposition to effect “victory” over “defeat.”
Cancer, of course, has its own agenda. It begins with its very essence: a mutation, a variation on the norm. A few cells become rogue agents. But the “body” treats them as parts of the whole, and therefore unable or unwilling to eliminate them.
In my case, the cancer had spread significantly by the time it was detected. Besides, as my doctors advised, whether or not you cancer is the product of one huge “crap shoot.” When routine tests found it, it was already too late to do anything about it.
Though looks now deceive, I was an athlete, by most accounts. I excelled at baseball, being selected number 666 in the first major league draft our of high school in 1965. The Mets took a chance, though not a very large one. I decided to attend Berkeley instead. I also played basketball. Indeed, the joke in my family was that I would die on the court. That was before arthritic knees cut short my playing days.
I am no stranger to competition, then. I have tasted victory and endured defeat. But winning on the diamond or the court strikes me as vastly different than in matters of life and death. I always believed that I could get the batter out. I knew that better shot selection or a well-timed pass could win basketball games.
But cancer does not behave like a batter or a basketball opponent. If it is to be defeated, it will have little to do with me or my “will to live” and everything to do with the medical profession, its techniques, and its chemistry.
In my case, with this particularly vile cancer and all its many complication, including diabetes and blood clots, all of medicines’ kings and horses may have no answer. Indeed, the odds are not in my favor, regardless of my own disposition.
Yet, even to talk this way invites scorn and disappointment. Don’t you care? Don’t you want to lick this thing?
Trust me. I’d love to have a do-over. However, that’s not how life—or death—works. I have no choice now but to consider a very narrow set of options, none of them promising. That bowl of ice cream and a few more football, basketball, and baseball games look enticing.