Dealing With the Reality of Cancer


First, Elizabeth Edwards announces that her breast cancer has returned and spread to her bones. Next, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow announces that his colon cancer has returned and spread to his liver. Yet, instead of treating this grim news as a death sentence, each patient has responded with a fight and a clear sense of direction: They're going to go on with their lives, and they're not just going to wait around for the cancer to win.

It's not an act of denial. It's a reflection of the new reality of cancer: It's a chronic disease that, if treated properly, can be managed. Like diabetes. It's no longer the death sentence it used to be, given the new drug protocols and diagnostic tools. Sure, cancer is a killer. We all know that. But it doesn't have to kill you right away–and sometimes you can even win.

There are now anticancer vaccines for certain types of cancer, more directed treatments to kill of cancer cells, assorted kinds of radiation and chemotherapy. It's not always necessary to half-kill the patient with chemo to get the cancer, and that's something new, too. Truth is, cancer is now a disease that is treatable.

The problem, of course, is the disparity in the treatments throughout the country. No doubt Snow and Edwards will get cutting-edge care, and that's good. But it needs to be available to all–and at a cost people can afford. So let me use this as yet another opportunity to call for some kind of universal health coverage. And let's find a way to make sure that the drug companies–which are often portrayed in a one-dimensional way as the bad guys–can continue to spend their money on research. Because that's the real way–not only toward managing cancer but curing it.