Last night my fiancée and I talked about the eventual day should one of us become ill and the other morph from partner into caregiver. It's not often we let such thoughts pierce our time together—so full of excitement and possibility as we plan our wedding. At least last night's talk was had over red wine and sushi, a favorite ritual. Our odyssey began with admiring our just-arrived save-the-date cards, then moved on to another item on our to-do list: the vows. We've decided to write our own, which will entail actually contemplating the meaning of these lifelong promises. But do any of us ever really think about what these words mean before we're tested? In particular, the "in sickness and in health" part—do we even have the capacity to make that promise with open eyes?
What got me wondering is a documentary I'd previewed earlier in the day, The Truth About Cancer, which airs on PBS April 16. In it, Linda Garmon and her husband, Larry D'Onofrio, documented their battle with his rare cancer, mesothelioma, which began in his right lung and ultimately killed him. Video of their shared intimacies—deliberations over healthcare directives from the comfort of their bed; an embrace in pre-op before a risky surgery—lays the groundwork for the program. Cancer, as pointed out by a doctor interviewed in the program, is actually a collection of hundreds of unique diseases and is diagnosed in an estimated 1.5 million new patients each year (further statistics for 2008 from the American Cancer Society can be found in this PowerPoint). The show takes a look at the distance we've come, and have yet to travel, in the messy battle still being waged by patients, their families, and their doctors—decades after President Nixon declared a "war on cancer" in 1971.
In The Truth, Garmon is driven by two questions: "Why did he [Larry] die?" and "Why does anyone still die of cancer?" With incremental successes measured by lab results and months lived, blind hope prevails. "When a loved one has only a long shot of surviving," narrates Garmon, "you focus on the fact that he still has a shot; if the chances are 1 in 10, you believe he will be the one." I imagine that Garmon once took Larry's health for granted in the same manner I now do my fiancée's, tall and slender runner that he is. He's invincible, of course. Even in last night's verbal exercise, it was nearly impossible for either of us to truly envision the other breathing with the help of an oxygen tube, quietly talking about the fight we'd waged together and how now, the end is in sight, the way that Larry did.
Supporting her personal narrative, Garmon weaves in the raw actuality of cancer for three other patients and their families—and the emotional, logistical, and scientific realities that mark their journeys. The betrayal of diagnosis after a lifetime "following the rules," to hoping for a "home run" with an experimental drug when all else has failed, to the pressure of not wanting to disappoint family should cancer win out in spite of a deep will to live.
Following the program is a frank discussion hosted by breast-cancer survivor Linda Ellerbee with a panel of experts, each of whom has also had cancer. U.S. News's Health Editor Dr. Bernadine Healy participates, sharing her own experiences with brain cancer. "I think all too often people who get the diagnosis of cancer think that they have to fold their tents and go off and get ready to die—that it's a dying time," says Healy. Her take—and the title of her memoir, released last year—it that it's a "living time." The challenge we are faced with now, she says, is to turn cancer into a manageable chronic disease, not only in a medical sense but especially in an emotional one.
Before watching Garmon's documentary and the panel discussion, I thought cancer—and serious illness in general—was unlikely to happen to us. We're young and we're vibrant and we're teaming up to take on the world. But the truth is that, in all likelihood, one or both of us will become a "patient." Viewing these programs is a difficult journey. But for me and my fiancée, it was also an inspiration to meditate on words and promises. And the unknown path we're vowing to take as partners.