Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The face of cancer

In an interview on National Public Radio today, film critic Roger Ebert discusses his decision to write openly about the multiple cancer surgeries that left him unable to speak.

Communicating through a computer program that turns his typed words into speech, Ebert told interviewer Melissa Block that his approach differs from the way his old sparring partner, Gene Siskel, dealt with the brain tumor that took his life in 1999.

"He was intensely private about the situation," Ebert told Block. "I respect it. I think perhaps it influenced me to be very open about my own illness."

The 69-year-old Ebert did the interview in connection with his new memoir, "Life Itself." He had salivary gland cancer, thyroid cancer and cancer of the jawbone, and after reconstructive surgeries failed, he was left with no lower jaw. Unable to eat or drink, he is fed through a tube; he breathes through a tracheotomy, which took away his speech.

His situation is extreme in many ways, but his forthrightness presents an opportunity for patient/survivors  in general to examine their feelings about being open and their fears that if they are, they might regret it.

Ebert is a prolific movie critic and blogger; he calls his blog "a venue for my truths," and one of those truths, Block says, was posting a photo of his disfigured face.

"I was advised not to be photographed looking like this," he tells her. "Well, it's how I look. And there's nothing I can do about it. We spend too much time as a society denying illness. It's a fact of life."

Ebert has been through hell, but in addition to talent, bravery, and resilience, he has an advantage: His fame gave him a "pass go" card to pursue his profession with less fear of stigma than ordinary people. 

September brings with it the hope for new beginnings (think freshly-sharpened pencils, blank notebooks and back-to-school clothes for everyone and, for Jews, the upcoming High Holy Days of reflection and repentance beginning with the new year, Rosh Hashanah). For those fortunate enough to be back on their feet, it is an especially interesting time to reflect on  the question of how up-front to be and how it affects decision-making in the coming year.

I've been thinking of this myself as I ponder the question of where I go from here. I spent the last "school year" regaining my strength and finding freelance work to update my clips and polish my interviewing, researching and writing skills.

I feel great. After a characteristically intense dose of rumination compounded by fear of getting back out there again, I decided to apply for select full-time jobs (one in particular really appeals to me) and to continue trying to get more freelance jobs (I have some ideas and also possibilities that seem likely to turn over in the near future).

There is plenty of thinking to be done. In the meantime, of course, I have to keep up with my tennis game.


donna said...

Can't wait to be on the court with you again!!! You go girl!

Ann said...

I've been thinking about getting back into the workforce, too. For me, it's an intimidating process. I'll cross my fingers and send good thoughts in the hopes that you get the job you want. Having you and PJ as friends helps me to push past my comfort zones and reach for a fuller life. Both of your examples are inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Dearest Ronni,
i was the first of our Sister-group to have cancer, a minot bout -- but your question is so apropos! i had what i called Vulgar Cancer, Vulvar...which less than .05% of women get -- i was blessed to have a phenomenal doctor, whom i called when you were ill, but the stigma....was unbearable....
so thank you, for pointing out the conflict, for all of the varieties of cancer...i was so ashamed...not breast, but vulgar...and i am so proud to be alive to say it...and not to have gone through what you did...