Hockey, Cancer, and the Chaos of Desperation

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Every year professional hockey from the NHL on down takes part in the fight against cancer. Among other programs, the National Hockey League does Hockey Fights Cancer, the American Hockey League has multiple team-based programs, as does the ECHL.

But there is something special going on in the sphere of professional hockey beyond anti-cancer campaigns which has a thing or two it can teach to the wider world, specifically as it relates to cancer.

It's called the You Can Play project.

In 2009 a young man named Brendan Burke came out of the closet and revealed that he was gay. This happens every day, but Brendan's decision required some extra attention because of where he was in life and because of who his father was. Brendan had played ice hockey through high school but at the time was the student manager for the Miami University hockey team, and his father Brian was the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League.

Brendan came out to his family in 2007, but it only became public in late 2009.

Tragically, just four months later, Brendan died in a car accident. By now however, the Burke family had committed to making hockey rinks a safer place for athletes no matter their gender. With Brendan gone, they would have to find a way to continue his vision.

In March of 2012 his brother Patrick Burke, together with Glenn Witman and Brian Kitts of GForce Sports, launched the You Can Play project (YCP).

The mission of YCP is simple:

You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.

The message is simple too:

Among other aspects, YCP has become a leading voice in advocating for hockey players to stop using homophobic slurs—an otherwise widely common practice, familiar to anyone who has ever spent time in a locker room.

The Power Of A Word

The You Can Play project has often noted that the slurs it is trying to eliminate come easily to hockey players. These words, as much as they might sting, come easily because players are conditioned to saying them.

It's curious and sad that we can learn to say such useless, pointless words with so much ease, yet we can't learn to say other, important, meaningful words without enormous effort.

We've witnessed this at the highest levels of public office. Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 and took office in 1981. That same year patients began appearing in clinics in the US with extremely rare and opportunistic infections, and they were dying. In July of 1982 the Centers for Disease Control, along with reps from other government agencies and advocates of the gay community, coined the word AIDS to describe this syndrome. In 1983 two research teams identified a virus that was causing the syndrome but could not agree on a name for it. In October of 1985, Rock Hudson died of AIDS.

Later that fall, five years after he was elected to his first Presidential term, Reagan finally said the word 'AIDS' publicly.

Would it have mattered if he had said the word sooner?

You decide: You are dying of a disease that is poorly understood and that is used by others to discriminate against you. You need all the help and support you can get, but the President of the United States won't even publicly acknowledge the existence of the disease. Feel lonely or forgotten yet?

Cancer. Cancer is the Word.

In 1886 Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich was published. To make a short story even shorter, Ivan is a carefree guy until he gets sick. Nobody can or will say what illness he has, but it's clear he's dying. Of the many interpretations of the book's meaning, I find Susan Sontag's to be most compelling: that he has the one disease that has traditionally been such a scourge on humankind that saying the word itself in some cultures is taboo: Ivan has cancer.

Because of the inability or unwillingness of anyone to confront the disease, Ivan dies.

That was a fictional story from 1886.

Here's a real one from 11 August 2012: it is not uncommon for women in the Vietnamese community to die from untreated cancers because of the many taboo associations with the disease. [Loury, Erin. "In Vietnamese community, treating taboos on cancer." Los Angeles Times. ]

As I've written elsewhere, the word cancer still gets truncated into 'The Big C' even though it's a two-syllable, six-letter word. Why abbreviate such a short word?

As I've also written elsewhere, in the 1970s doctors routinely delivered a cancer diagnosis to a patient only by saying they had a tumor; they were not told they had cancer. The word 'cancer' was reserved for the family; it was believed that hearing that word would cause the patient to lose all hope.

Today, at least in the US, patients are told by their doctors that they have cancer. it's progress, I guess.

It's what happens afterwards that betrays that tiny bit of progress.

Because the word 'cancer' remains as loaded as it ever was, it incites a uniquely chaotic desperation in patients and their loved ones.

A cancer diagnosis is one of those events that splits a person's life history in two: before cancer and after cancer. It is profoundly life-altering.

Now if you're looking for good news about cancer treatment advances, I'm not the one to ask. The realities in this area fall spectacularly short of their presentation in the media.

That said, there is a movement within the field towards treating cancer not as an all-or-nothing cure-or-die condition but as a manageable disease, one that might require infrequent treatments for the remainder of one's life.

The archaic notion of fearing that a patient who is told they have cancer will lose all hope and die from hopelessness is not actually archaic. (literally it's not realistic but it holds figurative value). Following diagnosis the medical community typically applies pressure to patients, and while under the most extreme duress of their lives, in the midst of that chaotic desperation, they make choices that, had they been thinking more clearly, they likely might not make.

By removing the Pavlovian panic induced by the word 'cancer' it might help people make better choices about their way of looking at the disease, from the metaphors they use to the treatment options they favor. If you think I'm exaggerating, go to any cancer forum or message board on the internet and ask whether anyone feels like they were pressured into making a decision that they came to regret because it was pressed upon them so quickly after diagnosis and they were still reeling from hearing the word 'cancer.'

Just as YCP sees the power of slurs and sees justification for ending their use, the wider culture needs to see the power of that one word, cancer, and see the justification for promoting its use. For saying it more often. For diluting its potency. For being less afraid of it.

Every year now we see several half-assed and ineffective cancer treatment modalities developed by biopharmaceutical companies and granted market approved by the US FDA. The most recent one that comes to mind is Zaltrap. But there is also Dacogen, Tarceva, Iressa, Erbitux, and Velcade, and that's just for starters.

Even a fraction of one percent of the money that went into developing these pathetic, underachieving molecules would have been better spent—it would have better served society and every current and future cancer patient—if it had instead been spent on a public health campaign to rip the stinger from the word 'cancer'.

YCP understands the power of a word to inflict needless pain and suffering. They are doing something about it.

Becoming more comfortable with the word cancer won't translate into a cure for any subtype of cancer. But if we take the word cancer out from under the bed where it dwells with other unseen monsters, we can better cope with its implications.

It may remain the scourge of humankind even after exposed to the light of day, but it will in time lose its existential sting, its unique ability to incite the chaos of desperation.

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