Do You Need to be a Hero to Survive Cancer?

An interesting article by a cancer survivor, Joshua Charlson, appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 31, 2005 speaking against Lance Armstrong’s image as a fighter against cancer. Armstrong has become a symbol of hope to millions of cancer patients, a figure one newspaper referred to as “St. Lance.” Yet Armstrong’s public persona as a cancer fighter is questioned and argued by Charlson.

  The fundamental message conveyed by Armstrong is that if you will it, you can do it.  According to this philosophy, whether it is beating cancer or winning the Tour de France, the right attitude and the proper measure of confidence will make you victorious. 

When it comes to cancer, however, this philosophy is, according Charlson, dubious and misleading. Indeed, Charlson proposes that Armstrong’s very history as a cancer patient is an object lesson on how not to behave.  As he painfully details in his bestselling autobiography, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life,” Armstrong’s tough-guy athletic ethos caused him to ignore all the warning signs that there was something seriously wrong with him.  He was spitting blood, with a testicle the size of an orange, before he finally turned to somebody for help.  According to Charlson, a healthy dose of humility, rather than an I-am-the-king-of-the-world mentality, is in some ways a far more sensible prescription for someone facing cancer.

This opinion from the heart of a patient with cancer is a serious point. Most of those who live with cancer and its aftermath aren’t heroes or champions of anything.  Rather, they are ordinary people who just want to get back to their lives as students, workers or parents.  In contrast, the heroic ideal sets standards that only a few can meet.  The model of the heroic cancer fighter sits even more uneasily in light of the millions of Americans suffering from terminal forms of this disease: Are they deficient in resolve, resilience or courage because their disease ultimately conquers them? Or is it their own fault that they die?

To live a normal life is the true goal for most individuals in the aftermath of cancer. It is thus unclear what the best attitude is for cancer patients?

About 144 cases of spontaneous recovery from cancer are known to science. Analysis of those who survive is still under way, but a few conclusions can be made at this point. Those who are sucked in into chronic self – pity, or bitter anger, have little chance to survive. We should not disregard the fighting attitude toward the cancer, as it helps during the period when the person is recovering from the shock of diagnosis. Moreover, a proactive attitude without being overly may have a beneficial effect on the immune response. Among those who had spontaneous recovery are many persons with high devotion or who appeared to be on a mission to achieve something. This is entirely reasonable, as having a “super-goal” helps to put together all body reserves.

Cancer is still a stumbling block for medicine. If you can help doctors and healers by avoiding self-damaging thoughts, by trying to keep your life together, by fighting with the side effects of treatments – do it as much as you can.

Each day of living is a great achievement for each cancer survivor.