The Relentlessness of Cancer Care in the United States

By Katie Nolan, Editor

While the United States’ health care system has proven to fail us in a lengthy list of ways—astronomical cost, limited access for vulnerable groups, inadequate preventative health services, to name a few—one place where credit is due is its relentlessness. To put it bluntly, if you are to have advanced stage cancer, you would want to have it in the United States (provided that you are well-insured, of course). Our access to resources, both medical and human, is one of the greatest assets to our health care system. The restless will to defy nature, biology, and the premise that death is inevitable, reveals itself in so many aspects of our health care system.

The United States spends more on health care than  any other nation, by and large, due to our high expenditures during end-of-life care and our pricey surgical and medical procedures to defeat illnesses such as cancer—to prolong life and postpone death as long as possible and at any cost. With these resources at our finger tips that we have witnessed save the lives of even late-stage cancer patients, it is easy to slip into the idea that we can, in fact, defeat anything with enough medicine on our side. In our fight against cancer, our attempts to curb the mortality rates has resulted in quite the narrative, where we, the patients, the families, the medical providers, are the heroes and cancer is the enemy that can be defeated if only we do take action. If we decide to approach this illness with all we have, we feel that we deserve health.

There is something dangerous about this idea. While it is a comforting notion to be in power of your future and your health, sometimes it is simply not an accurate one. By having the ability to fight cancer from multiple avenues, including holistic, surgical and medical approaches, and by drafting a narrative where the patient holds all the power in his or her fate, we are not only shifting responsibility of care, but the responsibility of failure onto the patient. When speaking of those who are diagnosed with cancer, we use aggressive and violent terms such as being a “survivor” or a “fighter,” and “battling” cancer, but what does this mean for the people who lose the fight? Are they “losers” and “failures” that simply did not try hard enough? Our culture of bombarding illness with an arsenal of treatments and our desire to annihilate that which harms us may paint the battle with cancer in a different light.

While there is something to be said about the agency that patients have during their treatment, we cannot allow ourselves to be disillusioned about the limitations of our medical ability. The option to never halt treatment is all too ingrained in our understanding of fighting cancer, as it is in most end-of-life care plans. We have to consider the ramifications of this cultural phenomenon in our treatment of the dignity of these patients. Although it may not be the narrative we are used to, sometimes there is no amount of care that can be given to curb the detrimental nature of such conditions. There is certainly a threshold where our relentless medical system serves as a hindrance as opposed to an opportunity.



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