Cancer, chemotherapy, and the anguish of personal health and medical decisions

Cancer, chemotherapy, and the anguish of personal health and medical decisions

Upon waking this morning, I knew that this essay had to be written today.

Last night, I heard from my wife that her good friend and co-worker, Carol (her last name will be withheld to protect her privacy), has lung cancer.  This is what the medical tests so far have indicated, albeit Carol is/was not a smoker and did not work in environments with hazardous chemicals (excluding second-hand smoke, which she was exposed to daily on an earlier job for several years).  She will be having a biopsy performed early next week.  Our thoughts and prayers are with Carol during this very difficult time for her.

All this leads to the main point of the essay.  Not being a medical doctor myself, it perhaps needs to be said, at the outset, that sometimes the doctors cannot see the forest for the trees, as they are too deep into the details of individual cases to view the larger picture.  Also, not having faced a diagnosis of cancer in my own life, I cannot empathize with those who have faced, or are now facing, such a diagnosis.  But, I can sympathize with them.

Cancer, in its many and diverse forms, is a terrible disease.  It attacks the young, the old, the middle-aged, and aggressively seeks victims in all racial, ethnic, and socio-economic categories.

The choices currently facing cancer victims are themselves rather problematic.  Usually, these come down to three principal options.  Surgery (cutting) if possible.  Radiation treatments (burning) if deemed potentially helpful.  And, the very prevalent chemotherapy (poisoning).  Let’s focus on chemotherapy because of its widespread acceptance and application in the treatment of cancer in the United States.

The idea behind chemotherapy, if I understand it correctly, is to destroy (kill) the cancerous cells and tumors before these are able to kill the patient.  So far, so good.  But, consider the delivery of the chemotherapy.  Unless significant progress has been made to effectively localize (and thereby restrict) the effects of the chemotherapy to the cancerous sites within the patient’s body, the patient’s entire body is being exposed to the very powerful chemicals in the regimen of each “treatment”.

Taking a step back to try to gain some perspective here, the presence of spreading cancer within a patient’s body indicates a failure of that patient’s immune system.  A healthy, properly functioning immune system kills cancer cells effectively and quickly.  Given that a cancer patient has a compromised, weakened immune system, does it then make sense to assault his or her body and hence immune system with very powerful and toxic chemical compounds (as are in the chemotherapy treatments)?

Logic, or even common sense, would inform us that this does not make much sense.  One is hoping the cancer is stopped and eliminated before the patient dies from the deleterious effects of the chemotherapy.  There are numerous cases of cancer patients dying very early on in their chemotherapy treatment as a result of the toxic chemicals in it.  (Such was the case with one of my aunts on my father’s side.)

It is common knowledge now that when a patient opts for chemotherapy, he/she has just written off any quality of life they may have hoped for, at least for the full duration of the treatments.  There are statistics available now that show that, for many, chemotherapy does not help but actually worsens their health, and even shortens their life expectancy.

Again, this writer cannot claim to speak for those who have faced, or are now dealing with, a diagnosis of terminal cancer.  But, I have over the years given some thought to what I would do if and when I were faced with just such a diagnosis.  For me, the right choice would be to decline the regimens offered by the doctors and try to live as healthy a life as possible (which might require diet and lifestyle changes).

These thoughts are neither unique, nor original on my part.  Various doctors, at times considered heretics by their professional peers and colleagues, have questioned the benefits of chemotherapy, and even questioned the US medical establishment’s entire approach to treating cancer.

Poor Carol, she is soon to be confronted with choices, none of which are very promising in her personal situation.  The doctors have said that with the cancer she appears to have there is only a 25%, or one in four, survival rate.  If that is correct, then undertaking chemotherapy would seem to be clinging to vain, even false, hopes for healing and recovery.  Yet, human psychology being what it is, each person, of the four, will believe that he/she is or will be the one in four to survive.

I am hoping that this essay will help to broaden the range of choices for those dealing with a diagnosis of terminal cancer.  In some individual cases, it may be the right or best choice to say no to the cut, burn, and poison regimens, and try to live as healthy a life as possible for as long as one can.


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