The latest ad by Pancreatic Cancer Action has received praise and criticism. Highlighting the comparatively small 5 year survival rate (3%) and investment in research it shows a real-life male and female patient wishing they had been diagnosed with prostate or breast cancer, respectively (where the 5 year survival rates are 97% and 85%).
Is this saying one cancer is 'better' or 'more preferable' than the other? Is this a cruel and unrealistic portrayal of what people diagnosed with cancer actually think?
In my experience as someone who has been treated for breast cancer, who has lost someone close to pancreatic cancer and is a psychotherapist specialising in working with people affected by cancer I find the "I wish..." statement not far-fetched or offensive.
Cancer is cruel, and being affected by it (including as family, friends or carers) can sometimes provide us extra courage to speak out and name facts - even if it hurts. Because in that moment, apart from survival, not much else matters, and there is not much time for a lot else (including niceties).
It is not rare to catch oneself thinking and wishing that life had dealt us another 'disease card'. It is also not uncommon after our diagnosis to change the way we feel about others who have health issues. While before we might have felt pity or sympathy, and wondered how they cope, we now might envy them for the life they have, while we are losing our health rapidly due to the cancer or treatment side effects.
Life is full of cruel ironies. While I went through my treatment, I remember distinctly seeing an old couple on one of their regular daily walks. I had always been touched by their routine and apparent closeness, even though one of them is clearly unwell and has been deteriorating over the years. Here I found myself suddenly (potentially) catapulted up ahead of them in the mortality stakes.
While I was undergoing treatment a good friend was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within a matter of months, before I finished my treatment. I had not heard much about pancreatic cancer before, and it put my own situation in perspective: I could receive and complete treatment! I was given a life chance beyond cancer. But their death was also a warning to never take anything for granted where cancer is concerned.
Even if treatment is 'successful', there is no cast-iron guarantee that the disease will not develop again. There is a lot we can do to help ourselves with physical and psychological anti-cancer strategies, but the uncertainty will remain.
I am not ashamed to admit, that if I had to have cancer, then I am glad it is breast instead of pancreatic cancer. And I wish my friend had been diagnosed with a cancer other than pancreatic.
This is what I take away from the ad - if we have the disease, than we wished it was the type with the best survival rate and most robust medical research and knowledge.
Surely, that is reasonable and understandable. But I guess, we all have to draw our own conclusions.
MA (Couns.Psych.), Reg. MBACP (Accred)