Many of us have encountered difficult decisions when making hospital visits to someone who has cancer. For example, does the medical establishment forget kindness in their clinical efforts to beat the disease?
Questions such as this are explored in “ Wit,” a play by Margaret Edson that tells the story of Vivian Bearing, a teacher dying of ovarian cancer. The play is being performed this weekend at Bangor’s Union Street Brick Church.
The lifetime risk of developing cancer has been increasing over time. For someone born in 1930 that risk was 38 percent, while for some born in 1960 it’s 54 percent, according to a study published last year in the British Journal of Cancer. Meanwhile, the average price patients and insurers paid for new cancer drugs rose from $2,000 in 2000 to $11,325 in 2014, according to a study released in July in JAMA Oncology.
Why there should be more cancer today and cancer treatments and medications should be so costly is a tragedy that baffles logic and hurts the heart.
It’s not the intention of oncologists to hurt their patients, of course, but imagine if you went to school to be a gardener, and there your teachers told you the only acceptable tool you could use was a gold-plated jackhammer. Instead of concentrating on healing the immune system, science declared war on cancer and threw everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to kill the tumors. And if the patient died, it was usually “death by cancer” — not death from treatment — that took the blame.
A recent study by Public Health England and Cancer Research UK found that in some hospitals up to 50 percent of cancer patients died within 30 days of starting chemotherapy, “which indicates that the medication is the cause of death, rather than the cancer,” the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported.
For example, a dear friend of mine suffered for years from breast cancer, but the tumors were stable and her health was bearable — until her oncologist put her on a “new and improved” medication. She went into a coma and died in less than a week. The medical staff I talked with agreed it was probably the medication that led to her decline in health, and yet her death certificate said she died of cancer.
Before she died, my friend believed she lived as long and as functionally as she did because she had found an alternative clinic in Nevada that built up her immune system to help her body fight the cancer. Such alternative treatments are not covered by health insurance, so when her money ran out she had to submit to traditional Western medicine’s approach — to blast the tumors with chemotherapy and radiation in a kill-or-be-killed approach.
Perhaps some recent changes in health insurance law may change that situation. Until Obamacare came into play, pre-existing condition restrictions and insurance policy dollar caps figured widely in the insurance industry’s efforts to limit cancer patients’ coverage. In exchange, the industry supported the expense of oncology as practiced. Treatment by dietary approaches, supplements and the like were not paid for by insurance. For decades, the medical approach of chemotherapy with expensive drugs, combined with radiation, has been the only officially sanctioned way to deal with a disease that is spreading by leaps and bounds as life expectancy continues to rise.
Just recently, a few research hospitals such as Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center in Maryland have begun looking at the approaches alternative medicine has been trying to offer for years, a way to strengthen the body’s own very capable immune system to fight cancer — not tumor by tumor, but to destroy cancer cells throughout the body.
“Wit” cannot cover all these topics, of course. But it does point out the inhumanity that underlies such a system, and the need for medicine to be driven more by kindness and compassion.
Lee Witting is pastor of Bangor’s Union Street Brick Church, and a former editor of The Spectator, a national publication for the insurance industry. He has served as a volunteer ambulance EMT, and as a Voices columnist for the Bangor Daily News. “Wit” is being performed at the Union Street Brick Church 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 23 and 24, and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25.