The C Word: What’s In A Word?

Letter C, in Neon (Crazy California)| By Antoinette Kuritz

Harry Potter lived in fear of “He who shall not be named,” but once Harry said “Voldemort” out loud, the fear of the creature began to dissipate. The same can be said about the word cancer.

As a child, I remember my grandmother pointing to a neighbor and saying, “She has you-know-what.”  When I inquired of my never-short-with-me grandma, “What’s you-know-what?” I was met with a surprising gruffness.  “You don’t need to know that,” I was told.

When I was a young teen, my father’s sister, more big sister to me than aunt, lived in my bedroom during her ongoing treatment for the kidney cancer that took her life within a year of diagnosis.  Four short years later, my beloved grandmother succumbed to the colon cancer with which she had lived for a decade.  And four years after that, when I was 24, I held the hand of my dad — my childhood bulwark against all things scary, and the strongest person I knew — and told him it was OK to let go as lung cancer consumed him.  My husband and I held his hands as he passed over. And all three losses were faced with the chin-up, we-don’t-cry mentality so prevalent then; to do less would have been unacceptable.

Raising funds for the American Cancer Society became my response to both this insidious disease and to my decided suppression of emotion, and I raised a lot.  But soon that suppression turned me into someone as afraid of the word as my grandmother had been — and I avoided it, like the inhabitants of Hogwarts avoided Voldemort.

In the end, what pulled me through these losses was a belief I attributed to science: matter, and energy, can be transformed but can be neither created nor destroyed.  My father’s mind, I told myself, his heart, his essence, was energy; therefore, while he was transformed through death, he would still live on.  Little did I know at the time that what I was really consoling myself with was a belief in his undying soul.

In a time when ‘going public’ was still somewhat frowned upon, Happy Rockefeller, the second wife of the Governor of NY, quietly made public her battle with breast cancer.  And then came the indomitable Betty Ford, meeting and greeting reporters from her hospital room soon after her mastectomy — that most dreaded of disfigurements for women at the time.  That simple act — and the courage it took to do it — was a huge turning point, bringing activists on to the scene, people who created and spoke to the war against cancer. As average Americans went on the offensive, the word began losing power.

Cancer is still frightening; a diagnosis is enough to bring a strong person to their emotional knees. But no longer do people have to hide their disease, as though in contracting it they had done something wrong.

Kelli Pickler just shaved her head in solidarity with a friend fighting cancer; this fall women will once again march to benefit the Susan G. Komen foundation; women and men now get regular screenings for a disease that, caught early enough, most often will not kill.  And doctors like Stephen Iacoboni continue the fight, serving their patients with both knowledge and heart, treating their bodies and spirits as one.

We’ve come a long way in the fight against this disease, and still, scientifically, there is a long way to go. But taking the word itself out of the closet, allowing those stricken with the disease the freedom to acknowledge their illness openly, was a huge and empowering step in the war on cancer.  Now the rest is up to science and God.

Photo Source: By cobalt123

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