I was the guy with the answers. The man with a plan. I prided myself on my listening skills. My attention to the details of my cancer patients’ journeys. My humanity. But pride goeth before the fall.
Surgical oncologists are a breed unlike most. We are brazen enough to venture into the places where cancers lurk and chop them out. We are bold enough to reconstruct the anatomy that cancer has destroyed. And courageous enough to suspend folks somewhere between life and death in risky heroics to complete these tasks. Along the way we strive to learn about anatomy and medicine and physiology and surgical technique, but instead often learn more about human suffering, the fragility of the human body and what “quality of life” truly means. We also can’t help but to learn a little something about ourselves and wonder, in the quiet times, what the meaning of it all is.
I was told that I am different from other doctors. And, in fact, have been told this so often, that I began to believe it a little. “You listen,” I’m told. “You treat me like me, not a number.” These words are easy to hear. They resonate deeply within the doctor that I’d like to be. So why, when my wife, at age 44, was diagnosed with leukemia a year or so after Dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, did I fall apart? I entered the abyss and couldn’t find my way out. How could that be? I had every resource at my fingertips, yet couldn’t manage to put it all together. The answer was, quite simply, I knew a lot about disease and treatment, but less about healing.
You see, I understood the breadth of the cancer journey, but not the depth. These lessons of the wisdom of cancer survivorship were shared graciously by my patients over the years who coached me from the abyss. Collectively, they taught me the profound lessons of life: the beauty of this moment, the strength of human will, the power of hope, and our undeniable connection with the divine. As a result, they inadvertently challenged me to become a more facile surgeon with clear goals of each operation, a more caring physician and a person moved to improve, in some small way, the human condition.
These life-changing lessons deserved to be shared with other survivors and caregivers and practitioners in a meaningful and relevant way. The substance was there, but it begged for a new form with more immediacy, authenticity and context not before seen. “Close to Home: Cancer Survivorship” was borne of this need. “Close to Home” is a series of video documentaries and songs in the intimate voices of survivors, caregivers and physicians deftly woven to cover a series of topics common to the cancer experience.
Additionally, after witnessing the authenticity, generosity and punch of those interviewed for the video portion of this project, new music of a similar intensity was required. Dr. Dan Foster and myself collaborated to conceptualize musically, then capture the wide range of emotion and color intrinsic to the cancer journey. Dan’s gorgeous melodies, enhanced with his breathtaking orchestrations, grounded my lyric borne of the narratives of survivorship.
Close to Home was produced jointly by the Catherine Boulay Foundation and PBS39 WLVT, Bethlehem PA. Its message is clear: cancer is now often survivable, but the survivorship journey challenges and changes us. Its lessons are often simple yet profound, poignant and joyful and are best shared by those who’ve been there.