Sometimes, ideas for a blog entry come at the worst possible times. They were running through my mind today as I was taking some time alone to cry over my wonderful brother who we are losing to a brain tumor. He is 39-years-old and in palliative care. I don’t know if it is the rain or what, but today has been the worst for me since finding out a week ago that the tumor has grown and time is even more precious.
What kept running through my head were the similarities between cancer and addiction and how our understanding of them has evolved over time. Why? I suppose it is because my brother has one disease while my son has the other. Also, both diseases have caused our family much stress over the years and I’ve researched them both to varying degrees, trying to save two people that I love with all my heart.
One thing I’ve learned is that both cancer and addiction are diseases that were very much misunderstood and stigmatized at one time or another. Thankfully, it is no longer that way with most cancers (unfortunately, some types still carry unfair stigma), which gives me hope that addiction will one day be free of stigma, too, and that individuals battling the disease will receive quality care as they would with any disease. And, hope is what I need today.
In the early years, the taboo disease of cancer was rarely mentioned in public because it was steeped in fear and denial. Physicians sometimes did not tell their patients they had cancer, and patients often did not tell their friends and families if they had been diagnosed.1
Addiction is still met with stigma, which is also based on fear and denial. It is still seldom talked about (but there are a lot of us trying to change that). It is probably one of the most misunderstood diseases today, but one that almost everyone thinks they know everything about. I was one of those people, until I got up close and personal with it when it entered my home, and I began a journey of research and discovery in an effort to save my child!
In the 70s, it was widely believed that people with a “cancer personality”—depressed, repressed, self-loathing, and afraid to express their emotions—manifested cancer through subconscious desire. In other words, they had bad attitudes that caused cancer. Some thought that treatment to change the patient's outlook on life would cure the cancer. This belief allowed society to blame the victim for having caused the cancer (by “wanting” it) or having prevented its cure by not becoming a sufficiently happy, fearless, and loving person. 2 When this ridiculous notion was proven otherwise, the public was educated about cancer in order to change these harmful perceptions.
People are also blamed for their addictions. It took a long time for brain imaging technology to come along but, because of it, science has also proven this notion of continuous choice to be false with addiction. Even with this important new information, there has been little to no public education campaigns that share these new findings. This lack of information to the public is why many people, maybe even you, still believe that addiction is a moral issue. In order to build compassion and understanding around this disease that is devastating so many of our families, a better job has to be done in educating people. Lives depend on it!
There are many of us speaking out now through social media and other channels to try to raise awareness and educate people but we can’t do it alone. Just as the various cancer society groups have advocated for their clients by educating the public, we need organizations working with addiction to do the same but they need funding. We need to support these organizations in battling what is one of the worst social and health issues facing us today. Addiction is claiming many lives while we sit idly by not knowing what to do. Many of these deaths are young people.
Thanks to the public awareness campaigns around cancer, people began to understand the nature of the disease and how it can touch any family. The public demanded that the government invest more money into cancer research, and they invested their personal dollars as well. Investments are still being made today. Now, thanks to the significant investment in cancer research, there have been wonderful advancements in prevention and treatment.
The advancements in cancer treatment have extended my brother’s life by more than five years and counting. In January of 2008, he was told he only had months to live. His wife was 8 months pregnant at the time. The doctors tried a new drug that was known – thanks to research – to slow the growth of brain tumors. If it worked, it would give him more time, which it did. This extra time allowed him to see his daughter being born and graduate from Pre-Kindergarten just recently. He also had more time with his then eleven-year-old daughter. The extra time is a blessing.
When I look back at my brother’s journey, I know whole-heartedly that he was provided the best possible treatment available for his brain tumor. I know that as I sit here and type this, he is being well cared for at one of our hospitals. This makes me feel good and at peace that all was done to save him.
I don’t have the same level of certainty and peace about my son’s journey with addiction. Anyone, anywhere, battling addiction knows about, and have been devastated by, the many gaps in the system that we didn’t know were there until we needed the services. There is a lot of work to be done to fill the gaps before one more young person is laid to rest from this treatable disease. The good news is that you can help!
For the most part, government invests money where the people want it most, but we have to let them know what our priorities are. You can help by simply contacting our Health Minister, Doug Currie, at firstname.lastname@example.org and our Premier, Robert Ghiz, at email@example.com, expressing your concerns about this addiction epidemic, and your desire to see something done to help Islanders battling this complex and life-threatening disease. You don’t have to send them lengthy emails (unless you are long-winded like I am). Just a simple note will go a long way. Or, you can contact them another way. The important thing is that you do reach out and make your voice heard.
Please join me and many of your neighbours in making this addiction epidemic a priority. You will save lives. Many youth (and others) who are lost to addiction need us to be their voices until such time that they can find their own.
In closing, I am dedicating this blog entry to my amazing brother who has made me laugh over the years in a way that only he could. He is someone special who I will miss for the rest of my life. It is also dedicated to my son who has maintained 21 days of recovery so far with his whole life ahead of him. I pray that he continues in recovery, and I am so grateful that his uncle got to see him getting better.
1. American Cancer Society Website