Evening of Remembrance, City of Hope, March 28, 2018
(Gently edited talk delivered to the loved ones whose family members have died from cancer in the last year.)
I’m here tonight, while officially on vacation — which may seem at first glance to be an odd way to spend my time away from work. Instead, I see it as absolutely appropriate to spend it with you, members of our City of Hope family. Like you, I have lost close members of my own family to cancer, including one just this past year, so I’d like spend a few moments of my life sharing my memories with you today. Not as a doctor, but as one of you.
I am reminded of my favorite President, Abraham Lincoln. Like me, he was a man who spent most of his formative years in the state of Illinois, in the state capital of Springfield. Nevertheless, his most memorable spoken words come from his few years outside of the land that proudly refers to itself as “The Land of Lincoln”.
In particular, I’m reminded of some of his words to commemorate the lives of those who died in battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In a similar way, we’ve all lost people who succumbed to their struggle against cancer.
Asked by David Wills, a lawyer in charge of planning activities, if he would give “a few appropriate remarks”, Lincoln gave his most iconic speech – in a mere 272 words, speaking for less than 3 mins.
This is always a reminder to me that much can be said is a few well-chosen words.
Ironically, within his speech, Lincoln told his greatest lie:
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here.”
While we will never forget what Lincoln said, I hope you will forget what I say here tonight, but never forget what your loved one’s did in their lives. I their impact all around us, displayed proudly along the perimeter of this room.
Today is a day for us to reflect on our loved ones, those who didn’t get to see this day, and to remember those meaningful moments they brought into our lives. I have two members of life to reflect on tonight. I discuss them not to call attention to my own circumstances, but to join with you in reflecting on those we’ve lost.
Sharing My Experience
It has been almost 8 years since my father passed away from lung cancer. We had a relationship that was complicated, full of respect, but also including many differences of opinion that led to arguments – arguments that continued until the very end. At the time of his passing, I wrote about this, how challenging it can be for those caring for our loved ones when they are in pain, facing their final moments, struggling to be themselves:
“It’s been a couple of months since my father died. Sometimes I see him in my patients, especially the ones who seem defiant and defensive, those who are most skeptical of my care. Other times, I recognize his struggle in my cancer later in life older patients in my clinic who are dealing with the challenges brought on by cancer.”
“These days, I am more careful to tell my cancer patients and their families about the confusion and danger that may occur…And I’m more insistent about getting a [supportive care consultation for them. I try harder to prepare patients and their families for the possibility of a [dangers in the hospital] and how to avoid them. I tell patients’ families that no matter how exhausting, they should make every effort to spend time with a dying loved one to avoid regrets afterwards. I encourage them to involve grandchildren in the conversation about death and disease. I remind myself that few families are ‘ready’ for their loved one to die, even when given ample notice.”
In general, what I noticed at the time, in when caring for a dying person, it is much more difficult to be a son (or a daughter or a spouse or a parent or a sibling or a lover) than a doctor, when someone is gravely ill and suffering. I try to never forget it, and my heart goes out to you.
This last year, my wife’s sister-in-law passed away from an aggressive colon cancer – she was in her early 40s. She and my brother-in-law have small children, overlapping in age with our own. As she was getting sicker, she felt unable to talk with them, to share in the last moments of her life. She also felt unable to talk with us, which was confusing. Yet is reminded me, again, that every experience of life, including its end, is an individual you one. We have to treat each experience as unique, not a part of a statistical distribution.
In the book, “When Breath Becomes Air”, Paul Kalanathi, a young neurosurgeon dying from lung cancer, explains: “My relationship to statistics changed the moment I became one.”
And children are often our best source of truth. I still remember by one, my older son Xander, who was 7 at the time asking uncomfortable questions.
“Is Grandpa going to die?” he asked me one day.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Because he can’t breathe?”
“Like when Harrison couldn’t breathe?”
Uncomfortable silence. Harrison, one of his younger twin brothers, recently had been hospitalized for a severe asthma attack. We had had to rush him to the hospital one night.
“No . . . it’s . . . different,” I stammered. “Harrison has asthma, which we are treating with medicine. Grandpa has cancer, and we don’t know how to treat it.”
Our three young boys understood the situation at various levels. We tried to be honest without scaring them. I was constantly impressed by their adaptability, their honesty and their straightforwardness in offering questions, thoughts and feelings. We could all learn from them.
“So, Dad, Grandpa is going to die.”
“Yes, that’s right. But not for a while.”
“Will we still come visit after that to play with Grandma?”
“Yes. Are you OK with that?”
“Well, Grandpa wasn’t very nice to us anyway.”
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, that was true. My father was a smart, hard-working, dedicated man who lived his life with serious intensity. But he wasn’t always “fun.”
Looking Back, Looking Forth
It is why we are so fortunate, at City of Hope’s Department of Supportive Care Medicine, to have Child Life services, experts in helping adults talk with children about cancer, about the process of having cancer. Our supportive care team is full of people who can help in so many ways. I am lucky to be the Chair of such a wonderful Department.
Returning to Lincoln, who summed up his famous address so aptly, focused on the survivors and looking ahead, a call to those among us who are left behind in the wake of a family member who has died. “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
It is perhaps appropriate that children are so often still asked to memorize these words for school. We can learn so much from our greatest President and our children.
And that’s how I’ve seen my role since then, to be devoted to the cause of helping bring meaning to people’s lives when they have cancer, to help their families, friends, loved ones and colleagues to cope with the losses, and to carry on the commitment to make everyone’s lives a little better.