Last week, I received in the mail a copy of an essay written by Alice Stewart Trillin, entitled "Of Dragons and Garden Peas: A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors." It was sent to me by my friend Maria U, who saw a reference to it, knew that I would resonate with it, and had to travel to a real (not virtual) library to get me a copy. She was so right that I would resonate with it, and I thank her, and I want to share some of this essay with those of you who read my blog.
Published in vol. 304, No. 12 of The New England Journal of Medicine, on March 19, 1981, "Of Dragons and Garden Peas: A Cancer Patient Talks to Doctors" is based on a talk given to medical students at Cornell and Albert Einstein medical schools by Alice Trillin, who was an English teacher, a writer, and an educational consultant. This is a powerful, wonderful essay that speaks to the issues faced by so many of us today who are struggling with a cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, it appears that you can't read the essay online, but have to order a copy from the NE Journal. There is a summary on the website known as the Literature, Arts & Medicine Database, and you can see how to order a copy, or have one-time access to the article for a fee through the NE Journal of Medicine. Or, you can do what Maria U did, and visit a real library that includes medical journals to read the essay.
Although she wrote this 26 years ago, Trillin's issues, questions and analysis have very much applied to my more recent diagnosis and experience. Unlike me, she did not feel changed by her diagnosis, but rather was struck by the banality of the experience of having a cancer diagnosis and treatment. She does a wonderful job of articulating the issue of mortality, and how our human, collective and individual fear of dying makes us reluctant to engage this conversation with those diagnosed with cancer. (This accurately reflects my experience, especially last summer, as I wrote in my January 13 post.)
Trillin writes, "We are all afraid of dying. ... Our fear of death makes it essential to maintain a distance between ourselves and anyone who is threatened by death. Denying our connection to the precariousness of others' lives is a way of pretending that we are immortal." In those lines, she expresses so clearly what I felt soon after my diagnosis, and have continued to feel. I am so grateful for her ability to articulate clearly this human condition. She continues "We need this deception - it is one of the ways we stay sane - but we also need to be prepared for the times when it doesn't work. . . . for me . . . it is particularly important to face the fact of death squarely, to talk about it with one another." She continues that "[c]ancer connects us to one another because having cancer is an embodiment of the existential paradox that we all experience: we feel that we are immortal, yet we know that we will die."
She goes on to consider the doctor-patient relationship, and the ways in which we are talismans for each other. Talismans, she points out, give us control over the things we are afraid of. First, for patients, doctors and medicine in general are talismans, staging a drama "in which we pretend that doctors have the power to keep us well." Of course! Isn't this the reason that for generations, patients have turned over decision making and questions to doctors, to decide how much to tell us, when and how? This has changed for many of us, certainly since Trillin wrote this article, and yet many of us as patients want to maintain the illusion that doctors, nurses, all those involved in our treatment, know best and will save us. I didn't know until I was diagnosed last May that I didn't want to turn over that power, but rather wanted to be a co-partner in the process, and be given the information and tools that were available to help me understand what was happening.
Patients are also talismans for doctors, Trillin maintains. "Doctors defy death by keeping people alive. To a patient, it becomes immediately clear that the best way to please a doctor is to be healthy. If you can't manage that, the next best thing is to be well-behaved." This was an aspect of the relationship I hadn't considered, although I can imagine how hard it can be for doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel to work in an area of medicine where patients frequently die while under their care.
Another talisman Trillin identifies is that of the will. That we wish to will ourselves well, to list all of the things tying us to life, to let them and our will be enough to keep us alive. She goes on to point out that part of this is believing that illness and death can somehow be avoided by having the right attitude. Trillin also observes that a good friend who died from cancer a few years after her own diagnosis had absolutely the strongest will to live of anyone she had known, and so stands for her as an example of the failure of this talisman. I absolutely value the importance of a positive attitude, and bringing one's full will to fighting illness and fighting for life. But there is a danger in others cheering on those of us with cancer or other life threatening illnesses that if we keep up a good attitude, we will survive. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
About the garden peas in the title, she observes that sometimes the details of our daily lives, the moments of living, of valuing the planting, the nurturing of treasured garden peas, also becomes a talisman. Being well enough to value the moment is a gift after being too sick to attend to the details of daily life, but even this talisman has its limits. Because I love to garden, and watch spring bulbs, early summer flowers, and especially my raspberries, bloom and (for the raspberries) then fruit, this image really worked for me. Right now in my winter garden, my Christmas Rose is sending up nodding blooms. I try to look at it each day, and love its white winter blossom when all else is dormant.
About these talismans, she comments that of course their "charms" don't always work. However, she also is not suggesting that these talismans should be abandoned, merely that their limits should be recognized. In a later article about her cancer experience, she defines the dragon as that which sleeps inside everyone who has ever had cancer. It is sleeping, she implies, and we do not want it to awaken. "We will never kill the dragon," she writes in conclusion here. "But each morning we confront him. Then we give our children breakfast, perhaps put a bit more mulch on the peas, and hope that we can convince the dragon to stay away for a while longer."
I knew before I read this essay that Alice Trillin had died. In September, 2001, she died of cardiac arrest; her heart problems came from the radiation she received 25 years earlier for her lung cancer. Her husband, Calvin Trillin, wrote that one could say she died of the treatment rather than the disease, but that there is no question she would have been grateful for those additional 25 years.