What Binds Us, Doesn’t Hold Us Together

Rodney Warner, JD
Rodney Warner, Esq

I work for a legal aid organization in Philadelphia, the Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Inc., as a staff attorney.  Many of those I help either are being treated for cancer, or have been treated for it in the past.

One of the things that has struck me in the two plus years of working there, is that cancer impacts all kinds of people.  It hits people who are homeless, and those who are millionaires.  People of all races, creeds, nationalities and religions are affected.  In a sad way, it binds millions of us across the globe, who might otherwise have nothing else in common.

One week, I spoke with a woman who lost her job because she took time off for cancer treatment.  She worked in a ramp garage.  The same week, I spoke with a cardiologist who felt she was being forced out of her job, because of the side effects of the disease and treatment.  One woman was probably making minimum wage (or close to it).  The other, if healthy, could be making hundreds of thousands of dollars.  One was an immigrant, the other wasn’t.  One was highly educated (medicine was her second career, engineering was her first) and the other wasn’t.

I was treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  One of my clients is a Hodgkin’s survivor.  I helped her with a family law issue.  She was older than I, had owned her own business, is an African American (as you can see from my picture, I’m not), lived in the inner city and was struggling to take care for a troubled teenage daughter.  We came from very different worlds, but each of us had an intimate insight into very difficult, and personal, episodes in our lives.

Despite this bond that millions of us have, too few of us work together to improve the lives of cancer survivors.  There are so many ways that could be done.  We not only need cures, we need to help cancer survivors live the best lives they can.  For all the billions of dollars spent on finding cures (far too few billions, as far as I’m concerned), relatively little money is spent on improving the quality of survivors’ lives.  The brutal fact is too many of us will never see a cure, and need help to live.

If I had a magic wand, and if I couldn’t cure cancer, or bring my brother back to health, I’d use it to make all of us on the planet impacted by cancer, and our families, have a common cause: cancer, its cure, and improving the lives of cancer survivors.  In the United States alone, there are about 11 million cancer survivors (plus millions more of our family members).  What would happen if only half of us voted as a block?  What changes to government and its priorities could we make?

In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, then Vice President Al Gore received over a half million more votes than then Texas governor George Bush.  In the 2004 election, President Bush had about three million more votes than Senator John Kerry.  If cancer survivors joined together and voted as a block, we could literally decide who will lead the free world.  Presidential candidates would come to us on bended knee, not the other way around.  We could not only shape policies, and budgets, impacting cancer survivors, but all those impacted by the health care system.

After poking around the internet, it looks like the 2010 federal budget for the Department of Defense is about $663.7 billion and the budget for the Department of Homeland Security is $42.7 billion.  The federal budget for cancer research is about $6 billion.  This is a budget from a President whose mother and grandmother died of cancer.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the purpose of the defense and homeland security spending is to prevent foreigners from killing Americans.  Those budgets total $716.4 billion.  For the sake of argument, let’s say the purpose of the cancer research spending is to prevent cancer from killing Americans.  That budget is $6 billion.  The number of Americans killed by cancer each year is about 560,000.  About 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks.  For the sake of argument, let’s say 100 Americans (probably far more than the actual) have been killed by terrorists so far since then.  If I’ve done my math right, this year, we will spend about $231,096,774 for each life ended (nine years ago) plus another 100 terrorist caused deaths, and about $10,714 for each life ended by cancer (just in one year).

These are very rough estimates, and this isn’t an air tight argument, but these numbers show a point.  As far as society is concerned, as its priorities are shown by federal spending, it’s OK to be killed by cancer, it’s not OK to be killed by a terrorist/foreigner.  If my brother was killed during the 9/11 attacks, he’d be a martyr.  Instead, cancer killed him, and as far as the country’s concerned, he’s a statistic.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend money on defense and security, I just think we should allocate our resources to prevent harm to Americans in proportion to the actual risk of harm we face.  It takes about two days for cancer to kill as many Americans as terrorists did on 9/11.

Does society think that cancer is incurable, thus not worth the effort?  Is terrorism or war any more or less curable than cancer?  As long as people have existed, there’s been cancer, war and terrorism.  Is being killed by another person somehow less natural, more reprehensible, than the slow, agonizing death that cancer often causes?

If we could all join together, shake up society, and use just a fraction of our vast numbers to our advantage (and the advantage of cancer survivors yet unborn) this, and the future world, would be a much better place.  But, with exceptions, we (myself included) don’t join together.  We don’t vote as a block.  We don’t hold businesses and organizations that profit from cancer responsible.  We’re not uniting to make the world see cancer as something preventable, something that needs to be a priority, something that’s unacceptable.  Society is where it is, cancer survivors are where we are, and if we were more like wolves, and less like sheep, we’d have other people to blame.