By Eunice J Minford MA FRCS Ed, Consultant Surgeon, N.Ireland
We all know what the phrase ‘the Big C’ means – it is a way of saying cancer without using the word cancer. I recall hearing it when I was growing up, people whispering it to one another that, “so and so has the Big C” – the feelings of fear, trepidation and worry were palpable. Even though as a young child I initially didn’t know what the Big C was – I knew it was something bad, terrible, to be avoided at all cost if possible, there was a sense of finality to it and the smell of death hung in the air. It didn’t seem to matter which particular big C you had – they were all cloaked with the stench of illness, disease, decay, sickness, bodily destruction and death. Even in the medical world, the word cancer was often avoided in the past so as not to induce such fears in the patient and euphemisms were used like ‘growth’ or ‘ulcer’ without revealing the true diagnosis.
The depth of fear around the Big C was and is huge – people instantly equate the C word with death, but not just death, it is a death that is considered to be slow, painful, miserable, full of sickness, sadness, a failing body, losing weight, having chemotherapy and its side effects like losing hair – of losing one’s bodily functions perhaps and being dependent on others for help and support in a way that we never think we will need to be. And the reality is that cancer can wreak havoc on the body and all of the above can be part and parcel of the journey with cancer – and suffering of one kind or another, be it physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual is a common experience for the cancer patient even with all the advances in palliative care, medicine and surgery. Yet all these medical advances focus more on the physical aspects of the disease and to some degree, but usually less so, the psychological and emotional components, with very little, if any, addressing of the spiritual dimension.
Yet many people with cancer struggle with the ‘why me’ questions: what is the meaning of this cancer, this life even? Why do I have cancer now, at this stage of my life? Is there a reason? Is there a purpose to it? Is it a punishment? Is it God’s will? The existential angst that arises through a cancer diagnosis is huge but often goes unaddressed and unanswered, especially in a way that is truly healing.