Bringing up the subject of cancer in a living room full of partygoers is the moral equivalent of screaming shark at the beach. Both words elicit visceral responses in people and some kind of primordial sense of dread. But whereas I do not know a single person (or even know a person who knows a person) who’s ever had an encounter with any species of shark, I don’t know a single person who has not encountered cancer in an up close and personal way. Forget about your Great Whites … Cancer is by far the most successful predator of the human species.
The PBS series, “Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies,” which aired the week before Easter, is PBS at its best. It has the luxury of time and the ability to go deep into a subject. We encounter ancient Egyptian medical practitioners and 21st century oncology specialists who battled, won some victories and lost a lot of wars against the enigma of a disease that has been the bane of human existence for as long as people have been recording banes of existence.
Produced by the emperor of all PBS documentaries, Ken Burns, the series reflects the kind of quality and import Burns’ work usually represents. And like much of his work, “Emperor of all Maladies” is just as concerned with the real-life humans who make history — in this case medical history — as he is with the nuts and bolts of oncological science. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of medical science in this documentary. One of Ken Burns’ great gifts is to show us the science in a way that is compelling, thought provoking, and understandable even for non-medical people like me.
Another installment of the documentary goes deeper into the actual identification process of the disease and demonstrates how good science sometimes comes from good guesses … followed up by an awful lot of experimentation, of course. But when all of the history up to now is told and all of the leaps and bounds of progress have been chronicled in this documentary, one thing remains: cancer.
You are going to meet some remarkable people along the way in this documentary. From the pioneering doctor who first came up with the counterintuitive idea of chemically treating child cancer patients with poisonous drugs, to the New York socialite who took it upon herself to almost single-handedly create the American Cancer Society.
Many of the stories within the stories come off like TV movies, replete with both miraculous happy endings and tragic ends to young lives despite the heroic efforts of dedicated medical personnel. Your heart will break with some of these stories.
But as I hinted at earlier, most likely everyone who is reading this has already had their heart broken by cancer. … Mine certainly was … more than once. I have written many times about my dad and have stated more than once that he is the greatest theologian I’ve ever met. His life was hard and he suffered a lot of misfortune. He had demons to battle and with his incredible strength and his absolute faith in God he beat most of them. Cancer was the demon that got the best of him.
But just as we see in “Emperor of All Maladies,” cancer can sometimes be an avenue for something better. And if our faith tells us anything, it tells us that suffering can be an opportunity to grow in our friendship with Jesus. My first real encounter with the disease in an up close and personal way came via my dad’s diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus. A lifetime of cigarettes and alcohol — two very tough demons indeed, who were not up to the fight they had with my dad —gave him this horrible disease as a kind of parting gift, I guess.
Sure, I had heard about this relative or that who had been stricken, but it is something entirely different when it hits so close to home. My dad was “only” in his early 60s when he was diagnosed. It was a horrible two-year ordeal of feeling helpless, then feeling hopeful when the disease seemed to virtually disappear, only to come back with a vengeance and take him in the dead of night.
Cancer is one of those ways God gets our attention. Because I was the youngest and still living at home, I was the one driving my dad back and forth to specialists and appointments. I was never closer to my dad than during those last precious months. I had always been kind of afraid of him and when you’re bringing up the rear in a big family you can get lost in the crowd … if you work at it.
When my dad was sick and all of my other brothers and sisters were married with families of their own and I was the only one left at the house, there was no place left to hide. What a blessing that turned out to be. I got to know my dad in a way I probably never would have if it wasn’t for the cancer that was ravaging his body. So bless all the medical professionals who have dedicated their lives to put this demon in its place.