Friday, February 7, 2014

Picking the "Best" Cancer

Suzy walked into a boutique called “Cancers R Us” in the high end of town.  It’s located between the Coffman Tobacco Wholesaler and the Sizzler Tanning Salon.  An associate greeted her at the well-polished counter with a friendly, “May I help you?”

“Yes,” replied Suzy.  “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer and I’m here to pick out which type.”

“I see.  Well, first of all, I’m sorry for your diagnosis, but I’m here to help you select the cancer that works best for you.  Are you interested in a more highly exclusive cancer, or one more common?”

“What’s the difference?”

The associate goes on to explain, “The higher the exclusivity, the higher death rate and suffering.  However, if you survive, you’ll be in a very elite group.”

Suzy started to respond when another woman entered the boutique.  She was dressed in purple and looked frail with hardly a hair on her head.  The associate looked her way and said, “Hello Margaret, I’ll be right with you!”

Suzy asked the associate why Margaret looked so frail.  “Oh, she purchased one of our more exclusive cancers…pancreatic cancer.  Their color is purple…that outfit was part of her cancer kit.  She’s come in for a Stage upgrade today.”

“Oh my…she doesn’t look well at all.”

“That happens with such cancers, but if she survives, she’ll be in the most exclusive cancer club!”

Suzy’s expression became slightly glazed.  “Um, maybe I don’t want something quite as exclusive.  Do you have anything a little more common?”

The associate smiled and said, “Well, one of our more common cancers for women is breast cancer.  Let me show you the package.”  The associate places a pretty pink box on the counter and opens it to reveal a pink shirt and several pamphlets.  “As you can see, breast cancer also has some level of exclusivity, but because of its popularity, there are more funds provided towards research.  This results in a better mortality rate and thus a less exclusive status.  But it’s widely popular as many people participate in walks and events and it even has its own month!”

“Wow!  That sounds better than that other cancer!”

Margaret was listening and chimed in, “I wish I had chosen breast cancer.  It’s nice to have the potential to be exclusive, but it’s so hard.  I have to fight almost alone…there are very few walks or events.  And while there is a month devoted to my cancer, no one knows about it.”

Suzy added, “Well, I guess it’s not a bad choice to make if I HAVE to choose one.  My friends at the Sizzler were mentioning something about a pink sounded fun.”

Margaret responded, “Oh honey…there might be walks and events, but there’s nothing fun about it.  The walks are important in order to survive!”

“Wait…so people still die from breast cancer?”

“Every day.”

As a silence set in, the associate asked, “Did I hear you say something about the Sizzler?”

Suzy responded, “Um…yes.  I go to the Sizzler twice a week.”

“Oh, well you might be interested in a cancer from our skin series.  By being a Sizzler client, you are eligible for a cancer upgrade!”

Suzy looked at the information and asked, “What’s this male-a-normal?”

“That’s melanoma.  It’s increasing in popularity and has a very high exclusivity rating as well.  Their color is a chic black.”

“Um…I think I want to stick with the more common variety.  Besides, black is a little warm in the summer months as I work on my tan.”

The associate added, “Well, this is our most common of all cancers but really can’t be considered exclusive at all.  It’s called Basal Cell Carcinoma and hardly anyone ever dies.  Their color is orange…sometimes black.”

Suzy’s eyes lit up.  “Oh yes…definitely!  I want basal cell carcinoma!  Does my Sizzler upgrade still apply?”

“Yes it does…just sign this form and I’ll be back with the kit.”

As Suzy signed the form, the associate returned with a tape measure.  “Here, let me measure your ear.”

“Um…why are you measuring my ear?”

“It has to come off.  Basal cell carcinomas are cut out with surgery.  Most are on the back or legs or head, but some occur in other areas.  With your upgrade, you’ll be more affected. In this kit, your ear will have to be removed.  But don’t worry hon, we’ll give you a prosthetic ear that looks almost normal.”

“WHAT?  My ear!  I thought no one got hurt with this cancer”

“Oh sweetie…I said very few people die.  But everyone with cancer suffers in their own way.”

Kind of a sick little story, eh?  Let me start off by saying that I meant no disrespect to anyone with any type of cancer. The story above was inspired by a recent Facebook discussion over an ad by Pancreatic Cancer Action, a charitable organization in the UK.   The ad shows a young woman with pancreatic cancer and a headline stating, “I wish I had breast cancer.” 

While the headline is shocking and offensive to many, I think most people “get it.”  Breast cancer has a much higher survival rate where as a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is akin to a death sentence.  I think the true message this girl is trying to say is “I wish I had breast cancer instead of pancreatic cancer.”  After all, no one…I mean NO ONE wants ANY cancer.

The debate that evolved in the discussion was whether one cancer was “better to have than another.”   I’ve heard the same discussion within the melanoma community regarding Stage 0 thru Stage IV.  You see, most early stage melanoma patients have a 97% or higher survival rate.  The cancer can be cut out and it’s essentially “gone” (although we all know that melanoma has a 1 in 3 chance of recurring, so it’s never truly “gone”).  Those diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma have around a 10% survival rate.  There’s obviously a big difference between the two, and that gap has prompted people to argue over the definition of “survivor” or whether or not the two extremes should even be considered the same cancer.

It’s obvious that the Stage IV patient suffers much more, especially physically.  The same can be said for someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer over basal cell carcinoma.  But the mental anguish can run deep, even with the shallowest of physical scars.  Cancer affects every patient differently, but it DOES affect every patient.

Several years ago, I was told I “might” have prostate cancer and I endured two biopsies to find out I did not.  I was told that I had a high probability of developing the cancer in my 50’s. I’m 51.  I have thought of that “probability” every day since turning 50. The thing is, I was told that prostate cancer was “a good one to have” because most men with prostate cancer die of something else…it’s not the prostate cancer that kills.  Yet, I have a friend whose father died last year…from prostate cancer.  It was a death as gruesome as anyone with pancreatic cancer or breast cancer or melanoma.  Knowing that has affected me.  And that was just a cancer probability, not a diagnosis!

My point in all this is that no one wants cancer.  Ali Stunt, the founder of the aforementioned charity stated the same thing.  The ad was more about the imbalance between research performed and grants donated.  I can understand her frustration.  At the same time, I don’t envy any cancer and I think the headline could have been a little more sensitive.  We might have pink envy, but I can’t imagine anyone at all “wanting” any type of cancer.  At all.


  1. Wonderful post and story. As I was reading all I could think was I sure didn't want to visit that store but then it hit me....I have been there and signed one of those contracts. What was I thinking? I wasn't!