Experiences with Breast Cancer Are Paving the Way for a Future Cure
Me and my Greatest Generation dad, 50 years ago,
with cancer still far in our futures.
I’ve lost two family members in the past week–one to cancer, one who just finally wore out, at the age of 93. Both were members of what journalist Tom Brokaw termed the Greatest Generation: those born between 1911 and 1924. This generation came of age in the Depression, then went on to fight World War II–in the trenches, or on the homefront. They were tough, they were strong, and now they’re nearly gone–the last remnants of a generation that can only be called noble.
My dad was part of this generation. Born in 1917, he grew up sharing everything with three brothers and sisters: food, school books, a bed. Nothing came easy after the crash of 1929; people scrambled for the basic necessities, and some didn’t make it, dying of starvation in the Dust Bowl, freezing to death around sputtering fires in winter “hobo camps.” But my dad was lucky; he ate so much canned soup he never could stomach it as an adult, but be made it through. And in 1939, he joined the army. He and his brother, Jim, were paratroopers, members of the storied 101st Airborne.
Four years ago, he and Jim were cited as the two oldest surviving brothers to have jumped into France on D-Day. Dad died of cancer three years ago; Jim died this week. My father-in-law, an army aircraft mechanic in Africa during the war, died of cancer last week. Three tough men, men who were part of my life for decades–all gone.
As I thought about these men, I was struck by certain parallels that might be drawn between their generation, and the generations of us who’ve battled cancer. The Greatest Generation didn’t create the Depression; they were hit with it, and had to figure out how to survive. Likewise, they didn’t create the World War; but faced with the challenge of saving humanity, they rose to it, and triumphed. And they did so with good will, and grace.
Years from now, when cancer is a treatable disease, people will look back on these days and marvel at the barbarity of treatment, just as we look at the Depression, and wonder how so many people survived with body and soul intact. How do we treat cancer now? Slash (surgery), poison (chemo), and burn (radiation). It doesn’t get much more basic than that; nor more sophisticated, because researchers have managed to refine slash/poison/burn to its most exquisite level of effectiveness. Still, come the day when cancer is successfully treated at the genetic level–or better yet, when it’s entirely preventable via vaccine–people will think back on the millions and millions of us who died, despite the best efforts of medicine, because we were born too soon. Who got hit with cancer, and did their best to deal with it, just like our Depression-era forebears. Who found themselves facing the biggest challenge of their lives–and rising to it, with good will and grace.
We’re not the Greatest Generation. But through our experience with cancer, we’re paving the way for an eventual cure–by joining clinical trials, taking drugs that aren’t fully tested, and undergoing experimental surgery. No, we’re not the Greatest Generation; but we’re pretty damned good. Don’t ever forget it.