USA Today called it a film that is “moving at times and an important work about the greatest disease challenge of our time – and all time.” The critique continued with, “It doesn’t make promises about a cure. So, it’s not an easy film to watch.”
Brilliantly presented, the informative three-part series is thanks to PBS documentarian Ken Burns and Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin — they are obvious champions of research, progress and hope. Together, they spearheaded the film, prior to Ziskin’s death from breast cancer. Dialogue with Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, gets to the root reason for the documentary. “For many years it was the disease no one talked about, not just for fear of social stigmatization, but for the physical and psychological pain that came with a diagnosis,” Dr. Mukherjee says.
The Hollywood Reporter painted a less than optimistic snapshot of cancer. “Indeed, the only simple thing about this particular disease is its endgame; even with remission, death is frequently assured.” The cancer film ran the gamut, from the history of this complex and devastating disease to the numerous strides of modern medicine. It covered the gamut of emotions evoked by the disease, too. From elation over new targeted treatments to outrage for breast cancer patients horribly disfigured by early 19th century surgeries.
Seventy years worth of absorbing stories … people’s lives interrupted in unfathomable ways by “the vulnerability [that] is already within us,” Dr. Mukherjee explains. “The series achieves its main goal, which is to show the human impact of cancer and make you fighting mad that we haven’t been able to beat this sinister, opportunistic killer,” according to The New York Times.
In viewing the PBS cancer series, my mind flashed back to the 2nd grade classroom where I first read When Your Teacher Has Cancer. I had dedicated the book to my best friend, teacher Vicki Kennedy, during her fight against breast cancer. Since then, she’s met her five-year metric – the cancerversary. It’s akin to some kind of a miracle. In his book, Dr. Mukherjee tells the moving story of delivering flowers to a patient when she reached the date. Perhaps, the cancerversary mark can help override scanxiety. In the aftermath of cancer, scans for recurrence often evoke anxiety in survivors. The scans, first done months apart, gradually increase to longer periods between, all in hopes of hearing the ultimate “NED” … No Evidence of Disease.
However, the cancerversary isn’t significant just to survivors. Every student’s hand went up in my friend’s classroom when I asked, “how many of you have known someone with cancer.” So, you see, it has ripple effects in the lives of everyone walking beside the patient, for years to come. Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies briefly touched on that side. The film gave voice to the over 200,000 children who develop cancer worldwide each year — but not to the children watching and waiting in the wing. According to the Children’s Treehouse Foundation, more than 700,000 children are navigating the fears, doubts, and questions surrounding a parent’s cancer.
The statistics on cancer are staggering. In 2010, Dr. Mukherjee (currently assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University) correlated the impact of cancer. “About six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer. In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer.”
The cancer film also touched upon some of the environmental and dietary implications, and the subject of complementary therapy was, unfortunately, given minor attention. A wealth of information, education, advocacy, and awareness on complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) is provided by The Annie Appleseed Project. I learned about the scope of the project in providing an exhibition at the annual Evidenced-based Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies Conference. Ann Fonfa, a 20+ year breast cancer survivor is the driving force behind the conference and science of integrative oncology – in association with the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine and other organizations dedicated to integrative holistic medicine.
It was there, at the CAM in West Palm Beach, that I met up with former U.S. Marine cancer survivor Peter Deveraeux. As a veteran myself and spouse of a veteran having raised two children base-to-base, Deveraeux’s environmental-hazard story inside military-life resonated deeply. In a subsequent interview with him, a side of breast cancer unknown to many and often neglected gained a spotlight — men are fighting too. Though less than four percent of men are diagnosed, it tends to strike them with a vengeance and results in less-than-optimistic outcomes. His battle with invasive ductal carcinoma was chronicled in numerous places, from a video with NBC News to The Saturday Evening Post, and it mirrored 500,000 to 1 million individuals exposed to epic proportions of contaminants while stationed at Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. Deveraeux may be among The Few and The Proud but he’ll never be forgotten.
Peter Deveraeux’s legacy exposes the vulnerability that is already within us. “The whole journey humbles us,” Dereraeux once said. The tireless advocate, Golden Glove boxer and battle-ready U.S. Marine gave his all to the fight … before his mind, body and spirit succumbed to it in August of 2014.
Sooner or later, this emperor of all maladies renders us all desperate for a cure. In the words of Sebastian, one of my readers who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 8-years-old, directly after his mother’s battle with inflammatory breast cancer: “I hope you find a cure for all cancers.” While I can’t personally find a cure, I will always be a champion of hope for those who battle it, and those walking alongside them. As one family in the cancer film portrayed, let us also be prayer-warriors – for the patient, their friends and family, the researchers and medical care teams, and advocates of all ages.
Do you have a cancer story?
How has this emperor of all maladies changed your life?
What can you do to lessen its ripple effects for a loved one?
Together, we can help ease the physical and psychological pain that comes with a cancer diagnosis.
Let’s talk about it.