‘You will lose your hair. You may experience some nausea. You may be subject to severe infections." Like a broken record, as a cancer specialist I have been delivering this message to people seeking my care for almost 40 years. Those eyes looking at me with shock, anxiety and hope tell me that the information may be correct but could not be less helpful.
As much as I wish to show empathy and provide support, I cannot answer the questions "What is it like to live through cancer and cancer treatment? What can I do with my life now that I have cancer?" Clear and powerful, that answer came not from a cancer doctor like me but from the artwork of a cancer survivor.
Twenty-nine-year-old Megan Hildebrandt shared her journey through Hodgkin's lymphoma in a series of drawings and collages on exhibit at the Moffitt Cancer Center in cooperation with the USF Contemporary Art Museum. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after she arrived in Florida a few years ago to study fine arts at USF. The initial impressions of her new home state melded with the shock of the diagnosis to suggest the images that haunted her treatment.
In a collage, hundreds of small alligators were nibbling her powerless body. In a drawing, she became progressively more trapped in the same sinkhole where the house in front of her student apartment had disappeared.
Eventually, as time passed and the cure appeared more likely, she expressed her relief in abstract drawings suggesting the joyful solace of a person who had survived a hurricane threatening her life. She demonstrated the discovery of the strength, stamina and new appreciation of life her trauma afforded her in a series of unique drawings where I could see the influence of both Chagall and Dalí. And she is now more than seven months into her first pregnancy.
At a recent symposium, Hildebrandt's message was complemented by the testimony of Diane Price Herndl, professor of English and women's and gender studies at USF. A 15-year breast cancer survivor, Herndl discussed the effort of the Breast Cancer Foundation to overturn the secrecy that used to cloak a cancer diagnosis. When the word cancer could not be said in social circles, cancer patients were unable to share their experience with other patients and enrich the community with the description of their journey.
The foundation proposed a number of images of attractive women who had lost one or both breasts. Posted in public places, such as San Francisco bus stops, those images taught people to look beyond the ideal of a perfect body. And by embracing the experience of cancer patients as if it were a difficult but rewarding exploration of an unknown land described in National Geographic, the general public understood that every human experience represents a personal enrichment.
Through art, Hildebrandt and Herndl enabled the audience to discover the mystery of the person. "Mystery" indicates a reality that cannot be conveyed in words but can only be lived. In the same vein they enhanced the awareness of our humanity.
As Miguel de Unamuno implied in The Tragic Sense of Life, we recognize our common root and common destiny when we become aware that we all partake of the same feelings, though no person can live through another's feelings. In the struggle of Hildebrandt and Herndl with their own fear and anxiety, trying to keep hope and affection alive, we recognize the distinctive fingerprint of our own human experience. Most of all they taught that even the most devastating event may be turned into a community asset.
They made concrete the statement of Octavio Paz, the Mexican philosopher and 1990 Nobel laureate in literature, who wrote this in The Labyrinth of Solitude: "History has the atrocious connotations of a nightmare. The greatness of humanity consists in making beautiful and durable works of art with the material of this nightmare."
From a Christian viewpoint their testimony amounted to living theodicy. This troublesome concept, spearheaded by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, implies that by God's grace the worst of evil may give origin to the supreme good. Without Judas, Christians believe, we would have not experienced Christ's redemption. Without disease, there would not be healing.
Dr. Lodovico Balducci is a professor of oncology and medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine and is director of the Division of Geriatric Oncology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.