Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  12/12/2021

This Is Not Your Cousin’s Roommate’s Cancer, Either

My previous post on the dramatic changes that have taken place in cancer care over the past 30 years was longer than most I’ve written so far. I could have written a good deal more. Long blog posts tend to lose reader interest, however, so I had to rein it in. But I want to address one related topic, that of making comparisons between your own cancer diagnosis and care experience and those of someone else. This could be a relative or a friend, or even a stranger’s experience published on a social media site you visit. The most important advice I give about making these comparisons is: Don’t.

Naturally, we can learn something from every human experience. No person is an island entire unto himself or herself. As the ancient Roman playwright Terence said, “Nothing human is alien to me.” Shared experience under controlled circumstances supplies the evidence from which clinical scientists draw valid conclusions about the effectiveness of treatment. Cancer medicine could not have realized the advances I talked about in my previous post without the opportunity to compare individual and group experiences with various forms of treatment. That’s not the issue at hand.

We are all human and we have much in common. We are also individuals, unique and unduplicated. No one else on the planet is exactly like you. Even an identical twin, a perfect genetic copy, has had different experiences, different habits, different exposures that distinguish her from her otherwise remarkably close sister. Because of this individuality, each person’s journey through cancer care is his own. Each person dealing with cancer blazes new trails through otherwise familiar country—but that country is foreign to you until you’ve spent some time in it and seen it for yourself.

Reliable guides through this as-yet undiscovered country exist. There are good maps and compasses. But no one makes the journey in exactly the same way and no one else’s experience reliably predicts what will happen to you. If you begin with the memory that Great Uncle Ebenezer struggled with radiation burns and lost a lot of weight, or that Cousin Emma’s best friend from college vomited constantly while taking chemotherapy for her leukemia, and conclude that such automatically lies in store for you, your feet are already stepping in the wrong direction.

You don’t fight cancer alone. But neither do you re-fight someone else’s battle.
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