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Notes from a flaming moderate

Faces of True Courage

"There is only one heroism in the world..."


There are many faces of courage; not all are as beautiful as this.

Patti Hansen, whose photograph by Annie Liebowitz is a knockout on Vogue.Com, does not look like anyone's idea of someone who's ever been sick. Nevertheless, she is a cancer survivor.

There's lots of talk about cancer everywhere in popular culture. There's a lot to talk about. Christopher Hitchens tells his personal story in the current issue of Vanity Fair.

On T.V., Law and Order's Lieutenant Anita Van Buren couldn't afford the cancer treatment she needed. Her struggles were more poignant than even the usual plot lines in this classic series. And this week, Laura Linney plays someone newly diagnosed with cancer in Showtime's brand new comedy, "The Big C".

Back to Vogue Magazine: The beautiful, long and leggy Patti Hansen, high fashion model, mother of two, and wife of Rolling Stones legend, Keith Richards, is a survivor of a relatively unknown form of cancer. An intimate form. Patti Hansen has come out as a bladder cancer survivor. In going public with her private and intimate story, Hansen joins other famous (and non-famous, but no less courageous) survivors, to tell their stories and advocate for their cause.

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No cancer is easy to experience, but, as we have learned through years of public education about breast cancer, when cancer affects an intimate part of the body, a sexual part of the body, it impacts the sense of ourselves as a sexual person - the very existential sense of being a woman or man. The emotional complexity of that kind of cancer is a felt reality, integral to the processes of diagnosis and treatment and to the quality of life that follows.

What is most important to remember is this: There is life, there is grand quality of life, after a cancer diagnosis, including bladder cancer. I learned this first from the gracious, warm poet, Sylvia Ramsey, who is the Vice President of the American Bladder Cancer Society (http://www.bladdercancersupport.org/) Sylvia travels throughout the States to tell her story and the stories of many others who have survived this cancer and thrived. The stories of women with bladder cancer particularly need to be heard.

You see, urology is mostly a male specialty, and most of the patients who come to see urologists are older men undergoing screening for treatment of prostate problems. Therefore, from the very beginning, it is daunting for women like Patti, and Sylvia, and others, to find themselves in the extraordinarily male-oriented urology setting which is oblivious to the emotional (and practical) challenges bladder cancer surgery presents to women. One woman recalls what it was like to wait for the urologist's examination, wearing nothing but a paper hospital gown, surrounded by posters of penises.

Christie, who was diagnosed in her thirties, and treated with chemotherapy and surgery writes, "I still ride my horses, go SCUBA diving, fish, hunt, and do absolutely everything I did before bladder cancer".

But facing cancer treatment and its aftermath can be daunting. Sylvia shared this personal detail: "Because of the length of catheters, few of us can sit to urinate. That is not too bad at home; in public it can be a real psychological issue. Imagine having to use a bathroom with several stalls, and you are having to stand in front of the commode. If people knew about this, it wouldn't be so bad. They don't, so their imagination takes off."

Both Christie and Sylvia, like Patti, soared back into their lives after cancer on the wings of their own resilience, and with the support they were fortunate to find. Christie is still athletic. Sylvia has recently married, and is a passionate advocate for the cause of bladder cancer.

Theirs are stories in which obstacles are faced with dignity and overcome using humor and determination. The marks of their courage are not pinned on their jackets for others to see, like medals on a soldier's uniform. Their courage is best known to those who know them best - the rest of us can only discern it in the serenity that comes through their words, in the vitality of their pursuits, and in the kindness of their actions.

The courage of cancer survivors, who tell their stories and work to help others, is best described by words attributed to Romain Rolland, the Nobel prize-winning French novelist and mystic. He said:

"There is only one heroism in the world: to see the world as it is, and to love it."

 

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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