Besides being a parent to two healthy teenagers I am also a cancer mom. Cancer mom might not be the nicest way of describing it. But it does get the point across fast.
I'm Jacob's mom. He went through surgeries, chemotherapy and stem cell transplant with Jeremy and I at his side. He died at the age of two and a half from a type of childhood cancer that confounded his medical team with its voracity.
I can understand why cancer moms such as myself might not want to watch Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies on PBS. It could be too close for comfort. I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't want to watch.
It turns out that I did want to watch. I watch it and I'm rapt.
The Emperor of All Maladies is based on a book of the same title by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I didn't read the book. I'm a big reader, so initially it was surprising why I didn't. Watching the documentary made me remember something important about myself. Maybe you'll be able to relate to what I am saying.
When it comes to loaded topics like cancer, I like to get my information from people rather than the printed page. When Jacob was diagnosed and treated, the Internet was up and running albeit differently from today. Other cancer moms at the hospital and clinic would stay up at night looking things up. I didn't.
I didn't read books either. My one experience was with a resource guide given out by a children's brain tumor organization. Right after his surgery, I read about Jacob's tumor type in there. The neurosurgeon practically had to talk me down from the ledge. He told me that the information was outdated. He said that there were details in the book that didn't pertain to Jacob. I wouldn't read that book if I were you, he said.
I had plenty of questions, of course. They'd occur to me during oncology meetings, surgical consults and follow up appointments. They'd come up during blood transfusions, in the MRI suite and the recovery room. When I was at home I'd write the questions down and ask them when I saw a member of the medical team.
When I asked my questions, I was never brushed off, rushed or seen as silly. People took their time. They shared their knowledge. One of the things that Jeremy and I discovered was that, oftentimes, excellent doctors are also gifted teachers. Same with the nurses.
The compassion they showed, the empathy, their choice of words, their analogies, their drawings, their ability to explain and their willingness to actually be present with us at our toughest moments is still something I think about daily.
The Emperor of All Maladies reminded me of this. The oncologists profiled were serving patients and families in every way. Yes, this is a documentary about cancer. It is just as much a documentary about people.
The doctors, researchers, historians, patients, writers - some of the people were one of these things, some were most of these things - were teachers that I could understand and relate to. Learning about cancer from these people made it something I could hear.
I read about a lot of things. It can be deeply satisfying to be scholarly and alone. Reading about cancer is an exception. Reading about cancer makes me a lonesome scholar. When it comes to cancer, I need inspiration, faces and conversation. The Emperor of All Maladies gave me that.
I hope I don't get cancer. I do some preventive things in an attempt to avoid cancer. I follow screening recommendations in hopes of catching any cancer at an early and optimally treatable phase.
I hope that no one else close to me gets cancer. But there are no quotas. There is no one in charge of cancer. Just because Jacob had cancer does not mean I'm finished with cancer.
The statistics are clear. One out of three women will be diagnosed with cancer. One out of two men will. It seems like a no brainer that some of the people I am close to will get cancer. I might get cancer.
Now that I've seen the Emperor of all Maladies, my perspective has shifted. I carried some assumptions now that I no longer have. For this reason, I anticipate having different, more nuanced and complicated questions than I would have before watching the documentary. That oncology meeting will have a smarter and more connected person in the passenger seat. Or the driver's seat, if I am the one with the cancer.
I've already written about the Emperor of All Maladies from the perspective of a cancer mom who likes a human connection when it comes to learning about cancer. But this isn't everything. There is more to be admired than just that.
The Emperor of All Maladies is a masterful documentary both apart from and intertwined with the subject matter. I expected it to engage my intellect, my cancer activism, and my concern. It accomplished these things. But it also connected with me as a creative person.
Rich imagery and lots of it. Vintage photographs and film clips that brought the history alive. Knowing when to be quick and knowing when to linger. Engaging with my aesthetic sense. Weaving it all together with beautiful music. A feast for the eyes and ears while never losing the gravitas or mission.
As a documentary it's right up there with the best of them. It's an education and a work of art rolled into one. No wonder it had my undivided attention.
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