Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sometimes we're right to be angry!

OK, don't laugh, it's not my fault that I live so close to work and rarely drive anywhere anymore, but I finally finished So Much for That and Lionel Shriver gave me the most satisfying ending to a novel that I think I've ever encountered - and that said after all my complaining about her. Oh, I wanted to jump out of my driver's seat with a fist pump when Shep made his final visit to the oncologist's office to discuss his wife's prognosis.

Shep had done all his homework and had known all along that mesothelioma had a very low, read no, cure rate, but with that guilt that is so understandable and which doctors can beat you with every time, he had continued to fork over the bucks for one experimental treatment after another. The latest one that the good doctor recommended would cost $100,000 per dose and Glynis's life expectancy was three weeks, give or take!

From my research into this amazingly angry writer, Lionel Shriver, I have discovered that she has had her run ins with the medical profession and their infuriating insistence upon prolonging life at all costs. Sure, each of us has a different sense of what constitutes quality versus quantity but I learned the hard way that our good common sense can often be overruled by well meaning families and doctors who see research opportunities and a healthy insurance reimbursement.

My mom was only my age when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. It was more than a shock to our family as my mom was one tough nut. She was rarely sick that I can remember and I had never known anyone who had had cancer and hadn't recovered, so talk of death was not an option. Within six weeks she was gone, a bald, skinny, shrunken shell of the vibrant, brilliant teacher, reader and conversationalist extraordinaire that she had been. I was so angry! Why didn't she fight it, I wondered. Where was all that spunk she used to show when she taught Shakespeare to the high school boys who were one more offense away from jail?

I overrode my dad and got up the courage to call her doctor a few weeks after her funeral for a talk. When he told me that she had known that she couldn't be cured and that she had opted for the full load of chemo anyway, I was devastated. To think she had ruined her final days, a woman who loved eating out more than anything,  no longer even able to swallow, in a futile attempt to "hang on" a little longer, for us? I wrote my living will shortly thereafter.

This all brings me to Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided; How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Some might say that this is a radical idea but I love Ms. Ehrenreich's courage to tell us the things we don't want to hear. Maryellen and I were first introduced to her at a long ago ALA conference in Atlanta where she was a keynote speaker about her first  big book Nickel and Dimed. She was angry then and she's angry now. There's a lot going on in this book but one chapter really spoke to me.

Ms. Ehrenreich had been diagnosed with breast cancer. An educated, research oriented person, she naturally went to the doctor's office with all the answers before she asked the questions. Then she got caught up in this relentlessly PINK, cheerful business (the ribbons, the hats, the tennis balls for pete's sake - even kitchen utensils) which personally drives me bonkers and trivializes the disease. Did someone forget that men get breast cancer too?

She talks about how doctors use the military metaphor for dealing with illness (we peaceniks resent that), the battle, the fight, the long haul, etc. She examines the guilt that one feels for getting ill and the subtle ways that one is made to feel that it's all their own fault when, hey, sometimes it's just the luck of the draw. But worst of all, and most damaging, is this implication that one can get better by positive thinking and that, is all the drug cocktails and radiation fail, it's somehow the patient who isn't "trying" hard enough. GRRR - This is one of the huge issues addressed by Lionel Shriver as well. Funny how when you're reading one thing it always links to another.

Lest you think, dear readers, that I'm some kind of a crank, nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, if I do say so myself, I'd guess that most people who know me would say that I have one of the sunniest dispositions around - and they'd be right. But, as Judge Judy once said, "don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining!"

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