The following is a commentary from Morning Edition, March 26, 2006:
When we were children and we got a cut or a scraped knee, or even worse, we were bleeding, we knew exactly what to do: run to our mothers. They would fix it. They would make it better. They would make it go away. Healing wouldn't be instantaneous, but we knew that we would be OK.
One of the shocks of becoming an adult is learning that not everything can be fixed. Not everything can be made better. Sometimes it won't be OK.
For anyone who has cancer, there is one moment that you can never forget. It's when the doctor tells you, "It's cancer." Now, the exact words may vary, but the impact is the same. Your heart begins to pound; your brain screams out in disbelief. Your hearing stops, too, but usually only after you hear the words that so often come next: "There's no cure."
And our first reaction is the same one we had so many years before when we were children: Fix it. Make it better. Make it go away. But sometimes that's not possible.
When John and Elizabeth Edwards announced to the world last week that her cancer had returned, so many of the phrases, so many of the words they repeated sounded so familiar to cancer patients everywhere. We've all heard them before.
"It's not curable, but it is treatable. It can be managed. It's a chronic disease, like diabetes. You can live with it." And all of that is the way that most doctors, and most patients, for that matter, approach cancer these days. It's not an immediate death sentence. It will change your life. It will bring pain, both physical and mental. It will affect everyone around you. But it may not kill you — at least not right away.
With all of the new drugs, with all of the new treatments, doctors try to hold the cancer in place. They try to buy you time. Sure, everyone would like the tumors to shrink, or better yet, go away, but that's not what happens in most cases. But if chemo or radiation can buy you a couple of more months, or even weeks, that's success. Because when we really stop and think about it, we're not trying to just defeat the cancer, we're trying to postpone our own deaths.
John and Elizabeth Edwards put on a brave face. They were optimistic and upbeat. They said they were up for the fight. But I'm sure that they, too, were rocked by those words: "No cure." Their lives will never be the same after hearing that. Elizabeth Edwards' doctors may be able to manage her cancer. She may live for years. But she now knows what so many cancer patients know: that most likely, the disease will ultimately kill her.
And though we're all brave, though we fight like hell, though we carry each other and allow ourselves to be carried in the rough times, we're all honest with ourselves, too. We know that the one thing we want just isn't possible. We just want someone to fix it. To just make it go away. Along with everything else, cancer robs us of our innocence.