Missing the Point Entirely

I spent the past day or two seeing everyone’s Facebook statuses memorializing Patrick Swayze in some way or another. To me, Patrick Swayze seemed to have had two memorable movies (Dirty Dancing and Ghost) and many more I cannot think of, but deep in my heart, Patrick Swayze IS Road House. There was an ad campaign in the late 1980s that proclaimed that. “Patrick Swayze is… ROAD HOUSE.”

It seems whenever celebrities die, people remember what made them famous or revel in the posthumous details, but in the aftermath, how much attention is paid to the cause of death? That’s about the only good thing that comes out of a celebrity who dies of a particularly horrible disease that’s hard to beat, and hard to diagnose.

Eighteen years ago, my friend’s mother had a stomach ache. Her doctor of many years, convinced she was a hypochondriac, died six months later of pancreatic cancer. There’s no way to detect it early, and once it is spotted, you are doomed. My cousin Rita lost her mother and sister to it. She found out, quite accidentally at the hospital while pursuing some other ailment, that she had it also. She died three weeks later. That was about three years ago. I think she, at 85, was resigned to her fate, and mercifully, she had no pain.

So it is hopeful, perhaps, that Patrick Swayze, and my neighbor down the street, Mr. Zupnick, died of pancreatic cancer more than 20 months after their initial diagnoses.

It’s hard to imagine what cancer was like in the 1950s. I don’t know if they had any effective treatments or detection, but my grandfather spent nine months dying of cancer in a Brooklyn Hospital. I don’t know if it was a blessing that Mama died at home of her cancer. But what I do know is that for the survivors, deep scars have been left. Mom and her sister were always very conscious of how old Mama and Papa were when they died (barely retirement age) and how much longer they have lived past their own parents’ expiration dates.
You could think that cancer might have been conquered by now. It does seem like it is studied more than anything else. It’s hard to know what’s worse, dying in six months or battling it for 12 years. A friend of my aunt has had chemo and four lung cancer surgeries, and should be dead, but she’s not. She was supposed to die in April, but she didn’t. She went to hospice, but didn’t die. They wanted to send her home, but there was no place else for her to really go, because she’s in a lot of pain, or on morphine.
It’s hard to know what’s better or worse: being resigned to your fate and going quickly and quietly, or fighting like hell and putting up with a lot of bullshit for a dozen years. I am at an age now where I have had several friends who have had their own cancer battles, and most of them have won.
So when someone who is a celebrity dies of a horrible dread cancer, it would be nice if more attention were paid to what actually did them in. The Facebook statuses tend to reflect a song lyric or movie quote, but what resonates for me is that this man survived four times longer than he should have, he had a basic cable TV series during his battle with cancer, and that he brought hopefully some more awareness to the time bomb that is pancreatic cancer.

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