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Caregiving: Cancer stigma

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Caregiving: Cancer stigma


Part 1 of 2. The front yard of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was standing room only recently, with reporters and camera crews camped there and waiting for him to announce his retirement.

Ever since Rehnquist was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last fall, many have been expecting him to quit his position on the court -- even though most thyroid cancer is treatable and has an excellent rate of recovery. Only 1 percent of thyroid cancer is very aggressive and the treatment odds are low.

Rehnquist has not disclosed what type of thyroid cancer he has, but using the Internet, some armchair diagnosticians have concluded he suffers from the more aggressive variety.

With his health in question and the future of the court at stake, an argument could be made that anything Rehnquist has to say is news, but an argument also could be made that all cancer patients are different and each deserves to deal with the illness as he or she sees fit.

A frequent comment made in the media, as journalists and commentators watched Rehnquist take frail steps with the help of a cane as he made his way to work each morning, was that the justice did not look too good.

This should not be surprising. Cancer and its treatment can take a toll on one's appearance.

My father has survived two different types of cancers. He had five major operations, and after each one he has suffered complications and lost a great deal of weight during his hospitalization.

He did not look good -- particularly when he returned home. In fact, he looked so bad that concerned neighbors made a point of telling me every single time, "He doesn't look too good, I don't think he'll make it."

This is not a helpful thing to tell either the cancer patient or the caregiver.

Even those in the medical field could be a bit more sensitive. Years after my father's first cancer surgery his surgeon ran into him at the grocery store and actually said, "Good heavens, I thought you had died long ago."

"Cancer is a tragic but very successful way in finding out who your real friends are, who aren't and which acquaintances become new best friends," Larry Lachman, a licensed clinical psychologist and cancer survivor, told UPI's Caregiving.

Lachman also is the author of "Parallel Journeys -- A Spirited Approach to Coping and Living with Cancer."

Real friends do not let the stigma of cancer get in the way of being supportive and available, but all too often, when the cancer patient needs friends and support as never before, he or she becomes subject to an onslaught of insensitive remarks or being avoided entirely, as if the cancer was catching.

"The potential for cancer continuing to be stigmatized -- the trend of blaming the victim, and then wanting the terminally ill to disappear out of sight, so our own anxieties over our own mortality and death go away -- is still a real problem in general," Lachman said. He added that the stigma may be playing a role with Chief Justice Rehnquist's fight with cancer, as well as with Peter Jennings, the anchor of "ABC World News Tonight" and Tony Snow, the Fox News correspondent.

In a study published recently in the British Medical Journal researchers at Oxford University found lung-cancer patients experience stigma, shame and blame -- from their family, friends and doctors.

Lung-cancer patients in particular felt prejudice, because the disease is so strongly associated with smoking. Many patients, even those who had stopped smoking years ago or who had never smoked, felt unjustly blamed for their illness.

"People automatically think you've brought it on yourself," one study participant said.

Some patients conceal their illness, which sometimes has serious consequences, such as deterring patients from seeking all the help they need, according to the study.

Why do we blame those with cancer, or for that matter, the unemployed or the victims of crime?

Diseases that are serious or not well understood can be frightening and often saddled with myths, such as that personality traits or emotional weakness cause tuberculosis, according to Dr. Jimmie C. Holland of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and author of "The Human Side of Cancer."

"When misfortune strikes it's a human tendency to search for a reason, the ready explanation is 'he must have brought it on himself,'" Holland wrote. "Blaming the victim let's us say, 'It can't happen to me.'"

Next: We cannot often prevent cancer, but there are ways to deal with it

Alex Cukan is an award-winning journalist, but she has always considered caregiving her real job. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

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I think the stigma is also the reason research into lung cancer has been left behind. I truly believe that once scientists start to look they will find more environmental relationships to lung cancer than they want to see.

They should start to document the heavily polluted areas, then when a non-smoker who rides their bike and hikes alot gets cancer they might start to see some connections.

Blaming the patient for a disease is wrong!!!!If that were the case why are they smokers who live in their hundreds ?????

I would also like to see the second part, very well written. thanks again. you are great.


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