Both my father and my brother served in the U.S. armed forces, my brother during peacetime, my father during WW2 in the Pacific Theater on the Island of Guam. My dad was an officer in the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers building air bases for the new B-29 bombers heralding the upcoming final assault on the Empire of Japan. Because I was a leg amputee at an early age, I was classified 4F, unfit to serve in the U.S. military. I nevertheless always fantasized about serving in the military and became an avid reader of military history and lore. My fascination with military electronics and communications technology undoubtedly contributed to my decision at a rather early age to become an electrical engineer.
Suddenly last year at age 79+ I was ‘called up’ out of the blue to serve in a new kind of war. A new kind of existential threat, a new war of survival against a new mortal enemy called cancer. While the weapons used are obviously very different, and the nature of the adversary is obviously very different, the psychology of the war against cancer ends up being much the same as in a real shooting war. In a real war enemy combatants, unless they lay down their arms and surrender, are simply a pestilence who must be wiped out and eradicated with whatever weaponry is at hand with no feeling of remorse, no emotion whatsoever other than the relief of knowing we, the victors, are still alive while our enemy has become a smoldering pile of corpses. And so I and my military buddies, those of us who have been fortunate enough to survive this day, gather up our meager ‘near beer’ rations, sit down and drink toasts to our fallen comrades. We laugh. We tell stories. We sing. We dance. We celebrate their courage and their bravery, And their humanity. While we celebrate ourselves for being alive. Just one more day. Lastly, we decide who amongst us will be tasked with writing a touching personal letter to our beloved companions’ widows back home.
Wars, particularly world wars, provide an enemy, an evil enemy, an entity much larger than ourselves that must be vanquished and ground into the dust, made to disappear from human existence forever. Failing in that mission means that we ourselves must then suffer the same fate. War is, quite literally, a fight to the death. And so it is with cancer.
Fairly recently I joined up with a cancer support group called ‘Living Beyond Limits’ that is put on by the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, a national model for providing integrative patient care for individuals and families touched by cancer. The group is facilitated by Celeste Torrens, LCSW, a woman who I have come to know as one of the most thoughtful and caring people I have ever met, a perfect fit for a group facing such extraordinary challenges as this one. At first I wondered why I had gotten involved with this group. Though I have metastatic disease that has spread to multiple sites and technically meet the criteria for participation in this group, it soon became apparent to me that I am not (yet) suffering anywhere nearly as bad as many of the cancer victims participating in this group. One that I met recently is thought to have already passed away. Two others have entered hospice care and speak in very matter of fact terms about the progress of their disease and their diminished hope for continued survival much beyond a few weeks, at best. In the face of death these people display incredible strength and fortitude. Their courageous smiles shine through their pain and misery and illuminate our tears of empathy and comradeship. As for me, by contrast, most of the problems I am suffering from are due to the medications I am on, not the cancer itself, which, thanks to the meds seems to be in an inactive state. Because my blood tests do not yet show indication of disease progression, my oncologist has not even ordered any further PET scans since I started treatment. And so at the most recent support group meeting I started to ask the same question that I had asked previously, “Do I really belong in this group?” But before I could even utter a word, one of the participants looking at my facial expression jokingly answered, “Yes, Steve. You belong! Quit asking!”
Previous to this my psychotherapist and friends had been suggesting, “OK, fair enough. Your participation may be helping others in the group, but are you sure this group is helping you?” And now I am happy to report that I have a definitive answer to that question. Thinking back to the year 1941, the year I was born about three weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the answer to that question is obviously, “Yes it is! All of us are in a time of war. A war that we did not choose – our war against cancer – our fight to the death against an enemy greater than each of us individually, but which nonetheless can and must be fought. Collectively. Together.