Another Little Rant: Cancer Care

Every time I read of some new attempt by the government of the day to improve cancer survival rates by setting targets for this, that and the other, my heart quails. With the best will in the world, setting referral or diagnosis targets isn’t necessarily going to change things. Not all cancers announce themselves openly in time for a cure to be attempted, and even medical professionals can misinterpret the signs that a cancer is present. Mistakes happen, and unless one believes they are always avoidable — which I don’t — we are going to have to face up to the fact that late referrals and late diagnoses are going to continue to occur.

Surely a more fruitful approach would be to look again at funding for medical research, not just into cancer, but into a host of deadly diseases that currently offer little or no scope for pharmaceutical companies to make a profit? At the moment our response to most cancers is still slash it, burn it, poison it (surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy), but genetic profiling of tumours and research into the immune system have both begun to suggest potentially useful approaches. The problem is such research is enormously expensive and results do not come all at once.

I am a greedy person, I have two rare diseases, not just one, and research into them is largely the province of university researchers who attract little funding from the pharmaceutical industry or other corporate donors. Diseases with a more emotional pull or wider range, such as breast or prostate cancer, are obviously of more interest. I have no quarrel with that. Whether one person is affected by something or one million, each individual has to come to terms with life as it is. What worries me about the present government’s target-setting is that it is generating both unreal expectations and, in some cases, unhelpful attitudes towards NHS staff. There isn’t an easy solution, and if someone you know and love is dying before your eyes, you will inevitably want the best you can for them. Sometimes, however, the best isn’t what we think is best. One of the differences between a medieval world-view and a more modern one is that in the Middle Ages the group had more importance than the individual. We, by contrast, exalt the individual. I wonder whether we need to re-think that, too?

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Living With Stress

A tweet from @Deborahhollamby caught my eye this morning. She was talking about the impact stress can have on our health. Anyone who suffers from an immune disorder knows how damaging stress can be, but what exactly is stress and how long have we been subject to it? I can’t find any references to ‘stress’ in the sense that we use the word earlier than the twentieth century; so is it a modern phenomenon? A case of re-minting an old word to give it a keener edge?

‘Distress’ has been around a lot longer; and to me, at least, its root meaning, from the Latin distringere, to pull or stretch apart, is both clearer and more evocative. We all know the feeling of being torn apart by worry or conflicting duties or events in our lives which make us unhappy. Is the way we cope with distress fundamentally different from the way in which we cope with stress?

Whether we call it stress or distress, we all have to live with imperfect circumstances that can make huge physical and emotional demands on us, but I do think monastic life offers some guidelines for dealing with it that should be better known. I have often mentioned that end-of-the-day review (examination of conscience) which allows us consciously to accept both the good and the bad and turn it all over to God. That act of turning things over to God isn’t a cop out. It is a recognition that we aren’t in charge, God is. When we take ourselves from centre stage, we allow God more scope; and that must be good.

It isn’t only the end-of-day review that helps. Every time we go into choir to sing the Divine Office, we sign ourselves with the Cross and with holy water. That is a powerful reminder both of our baptism and of our desire to stand before God with clean hearts, free from anything that might be unworthy of him. Sometimes we don’t just have to purify our hearts, we have to pacify them as well. Letting go is often hard to do, but being regularly called back into the Prayer of Christ is a way of freeing ourselves from the bonds that stress (or distress) create.

For those who don’t live in monasteries, this could seem a bit remote from reality; but most of us do have odd moments during the day when we have no particular duty or job to do. Such moments can be used for turning to the Lord, creating out of the chaos of our lives something that is quiet and still. If all else fails and the demons continue to haunt us, we can remember that Jesus’ quiet time was in Gethsemane and it was on the Cross that he finally, irrevocably turned everything over to God.

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