Caring Currents

Media Focus on Patrick Swayze's Cancer Begs the Real Questions

Last updated: Mar 07, 2008

The sudden media attention on Patrick Swayze's diagnosis with pancreatic cancer sure got a lot of cancer patients and their caregivers thinking, judging from the buzz in the blogosphere . What it really got me thinking about wasn't Patrick Swayze himself, though like all his fans, I certainly feel a pang. It got me thinking about how we talk to each other about cancer, and specifically how those of us who don't have cancer but are close to or caring for those who do, talk about it with them. We make a couple of big mistakes, I think.

First of all, we focus obsessively on dramatic pronouncements about prognosis, as the media did with Swayze. It's natural, of course--we desperately want someone to tell us how much longer we have with this person we love so much. But it's not all that helpful, especially to the person who's dealing with the day-to-day reality of being treated for cancer. What cancer patients really want to talk about, based on the questions I see each day, is how they feel and what they can do to feel better so they can get on with the business of living. They're demanding specific, practical answers: what to expect from certain chemo drugs and regimens,  when their hair might grow in again , and how to control coughing ,  just to name a few. Isn't that right?

Secondly, too many of us soft-peddle our answers. Susan Reynolds, one of my favorite cancer bloggers, posted a great entry yesterday in which she took the National Cancer Institute to task for their publications about pain, diet, and other issues, calling them superficial, obvious, and not terribly helpful. Which, sadly, many cancer publications are. What Reynolds and many others would like to see, is an honest aknowledgement of the pain, discomfort, and frustration that come with cancer treatment and suggestions--lots and lots of suggestions--about what works and what doesn't.

You can help. Do you have something to say about coping with cancer treatment and how we talk about it?  Please, don't be shy.