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Duke Health Ad: Cancer Victims Didn’t Want Cure Enough?

I’ve seen this advertisement three times here in North Carolina, each time feeling an itch as I walked by:

my  oncologist  told me you can  do this and so I did Duke Health Cancer Survivor
I get that it may be useful to explore all options and to take control of learning about one’s cancer so that one can be a successful advocate for one’s self in a health care bureaucracy. I understand that a doctor who tells cancer patients when treatments are possible can help those patients battle despair.

This message from Duke Health is subtly but importantly different, however. “My Duke oncologist told me, ‘You can do this!’ So I did,” says “Betty” in the ad “about being a cancer survivor.” Wouldn’t it be nice if deciding you can be a cancer survivor would be how a person becomes a cancer survivor? You know, like deciding to become a libertarian? It would be very nice, but that’s not how cancer works. Cancers don’t listen to how much a person cares or how many self-affirmations are uttered.

The message that wanting a cancer cure is the big step in getting a cancer cure is surely useful to Duke Health in getting more customers. But it’s such a damaging message to people struggling with cancer because of its inaccurate corollary: that people who die from cancer didn’t bother enough to get miraculously peppy about their prospects, that if they’d only wished to be a survivor a little harder, survivorship  would have come their way.

To be blunt, that’s bullshit. It’s more than bullshit; it’s a redirection of energy away from this biological disease, away from patient needs, toward the need of a health care corporation to sell possibility of survival to desperate people when sometimes there is no reasonable prospect of survival. 

People who tell their cancer-struck friends “you can beat this!” or “you’re so strong and determined; if anyone can survive this, you can” are similarly wrong factually speaking. They’re following their need to soothe their own anxiety about the death of a loved one by finding an imaginary comfortable silver lining where a real one may not exist. While comforting themselves, these friends set up a trap for cancer sufferers: you’d better be sunny and cheery about your death sentence! Smile for me!

That’s not what friends are for, but sometimes friends don’t know better or just haven’t thought their messages through. Massive health care corporations with entire marketing departments don’t have that excuse.

6 thoughts on “Duke Health Ad: Cancer Victims Didn’t Want Cure Enough?”

  1. Dave says:

    “You can do this” is a long way from “here is a treatment that has a track record of bringing about remission in X number of cases. Chemotherapy can be a real trap, as some patients get well and most don’t, leaving us all to wonder what exactly brought about the recovery only in some cases. The ad might just as well be saying “I see you’ve gotten bad news from your oncologist; here’s a straw — grab it.”

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Of course people die on chemotherapy — it’s a treatment for cancer which tends to kill people. It is also indisputably hazard-laden. But chemotherapies have been experimentally shown to prolong survival times.

      1. Dave says:

        Agreed. But prolonging survival times is measured in averages. Drug X may be shown to increase the life span of 1000 patients an average of 30 days, but if you pin the doctor down with “what will this drug do for me personally” the doctor will shrug and say something like “it will help us to control the disease.” I’ve been down this road with two family members and there is no cure for most cancers. Doctors measure the efficacy of one drug over another in days. There are a few remarkable drugs that can give a patient a pretty good quality of life for maybe two years, but after that they will begin to rely on some of the older and deadlier drugs to extend a life (and an income stream) as long as the patient is willing to endure it. I remember one drug the nurses called the “red devil” because of its side effects. Nowadays I will tell anyone that will listen to spend as much quality time with their loved one as they can while hoping for a miracle. Yes, miracles do happen, but there are no miracle drugs when it comes to this disease.

        1. Jim Cook says:

          I hear what you’re saying. My wife has cancer. There are no perfect drugs, but she would have been quickly dead years ago and instead has had some good years. That’s not perfection, it’s not a miracle, but I refuse to say it’s not good.

          1. Dave says:

            “but I refuse to say it’s not good.” That’s as it should be. My comments above may be unfair to the medical people. My wife died too young a year ago July from breast cancer, metastatic to the bones. We found it too late for chemo and radiation to possibly eradicate it, and she was given three to six months to live if we opted out of therapy. She lived almost four years, and for every minute I am thankful. Chemo every three weeks.

            We expected some bleak days, but surprisingly there were few. Meds to control the disease and also mitigate many of the side effects are truly miraculous these days. As you know by now, someone like me will deal with the unspeakable grief of losing a lifetime mate by letting it fade a bit in the bright light of eternity, and I am truly hoping for the best outcome for you and your mate. Today’s standard therapies offer patients the possibility of remission, something that was far less likely in days past.

          2. Jim Cook says:

            I hear you, Dave. I’m sorry to hear about your experience, and I won’t even try to qualify that with any silver linings.

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