Archive for July, 2008

Trees, Doves and Cancer

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

A five-year survival celebration

A Japanese cherry tree has been planted in my name.

My tree is near the Ferko Recreation Center on East Cayuga Street, a neighborhood facility in northeastern Philadelphia, part of the rejuvenated Juniata Golf Course (a city-owned course that is one of 63 parks in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System). A grove of trees has been planted in honor of those who in 2008 reached a five-year anniversary of surviving after cancer treatment.

I am among those survivors, having been treated for prostate cancer in 2003 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at Southwestern Regional Medical Center, one of five hospitals and clinics operated nationally by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). CTCA hospitals operate in Philadelphia, Pa.; Tulsa, Okla.; Zion, Ill.; Seattle, Wash.; and a new medical center set to open in 2009 in Goodyear, Ariz., just outside Phoenix.

When CTCA opened a new Eastern Regional Medical Center in 2005 in Philadelphia—across the street from the backside of the Juniata Golf Club—I decided driving to the city of brotherly love was much easier than flying to Tulsa for my annual checkups. Thus, I became a patient at the Philly facility.

All of the CTCA facilities celebrate life by planting trees for five-year survivors; it is a hopeful tradition. “We want to plant a forest,” the CTCA literature proclaims. CTCA’s original facility in Illinois planted 105 trees in 2008. The two-year old Philadelphia hospital planted six.

Last month, the CTCA in Philadelphia invited the five-year survivors back for a two-day “Celebration of Life.” The hospital’s main parking lot was transformed by two huge tents into a dining hall and an assembly hall. Movie star Richard Roundtree, the original “Shaft” of the silver screen, himself a survivor of breast cancer, was the keynote speaker, but the real “stars” of the festival were the five-year survivors.

We were treated as celebrities. Although not all of us attended the full-blown program, we were interviewed and video-taped, feted by every speechmaker, seated for meals with the “suits” who administer and run CTCA’s multimillion dollar operations, and congratulated by every hospital staff member from the chiefs of surgery and radiology to the porters of maintenance and the drivers of CTCA’s characteristic white buses and limos.

I frequently found myself responding to a congratulatory greeting by thinking, “What did I do?” It was as if the entire enterprise of CTCA was celebrating my birthday; and, in a way, I suppose that’s true.

My cancer treatment turned out to be a case of bombarding my prostate gland with external radiation beams, a non-invasive and almost pedestrian procedure—if any treatment for cancer can be considered pedestrian (think of trying to steadily hold a laser pointer on a postage stamp from about ten-feet away). In 2003, I spent a month at the facility in Tulsa receiving daily radiation. The treatment itself took about one hour each weekday. The rest of my time there was like being on vacation, or perhaps more like being on a cruise ship. My then 11-year-old youngest son spent a week in Tulsa with me, watching me undergo treatment via closed-circuit TV and learning to play BINGO at night with the other patients. He won an umbrella and a pair of kitchen scissors that we still use.

When I was undergoing treatment, the Southwestern Medical Center in Tulsa occupied several floors of the 20-, 30-, and 60-storey CityPlex towers that were built as the “City of Faith” by the television evangelist and faith-healer Oral Roberts. Financial considerations forced Roberts to lease the tower complex, but there remained an aura of holiness Christianity hovering over the place (as there is in much of southeastern Tulsa around Oral Roberts University).

Because of its innovative treatment approaches to cancer and its temporary location (Southwestern four years ago moved into a new facility of its own several miles to the east), I think CTCA in Tulsa had to deal with a wrong-headed image of “religious quirkiness” that some attached to its locale and its practice. The only truth in that image is that faith is not discounted or discouraged at CTCA, and chaplains are incorporated as professionals in the total comprehensive treatment plan. The only active association I learned of between CTCA and Oral Roberts University was that two of its chaplains held degrees from that school.

One woman who shared the celebratory spotlight in Philadelphia with me has become something of a willing and enthusiastic spokesperson for CTCA and a force for the medical and psychological fight against cancer.

Jan Pedersen is a survivor of ovarian cancer. She had been through surgery and had been advised that chemotherapy was her only hope or she would be dead in six months. Her oncologist, in Jan’s words, “scoffed” at her questions about diet, nutrition and supplements as a treatment program. That’s when Jan discovered CTCA and learned about what she calls “a team of professionals who cover every aspect of body, mind and spirit. They treat the whole person, and this was what I was looking for . . . a team of doctors who would work with me to decide the best course of action to fight this disease.”

Treating the body, mind, and spirit is a hallmark of CTCA, and among the many options for treatment that my wife and I investigated when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, it was by far the only option that integrated holistic medicine, psychological hope, state-of-the-art technology and the mystery of the healing spirit.

In Tulsa, I learned a great deal about nutrition and naturopathic medicine; one naturopathic physician planted a watchword in my brain: “take daily probiotics and drink lots of water!” I was ministered to daily by chaplains who understood that my spirit had cancer too. I ate meals with patients from all over the United States—and some from beyond. Many of them had been dismissed or rejected by other cancer treatment facilities, having been told in effect to “go home and prepare to die.” Not all of them, of course, lived to have a tree planted in their names, but I believe most found a modicum of hope and peace being among professionals who wholeheartedly joined their struggle to live.

When it comes to surgery, I rank among the top of the world’s wusses, and when my urologist, who biopsied my prostate, was ready to put me on the operating table the next day, I balked. Several discussions later, that urologist asked me as I spoke of pondering radiation treatment if I were willing to put “an atom bomb” in my body.

I have a close friend who is a top-notch radiology researcher, and I’d been talking to him about radiation therapy and the advances in that field in the 21st century. The urologist’s attempt at drama became for me a sign of misinformation. After a visit to Tulsa and consultations with the specialists there, the treatment choice for me was clear.

Five years later, I am celebrating that decision, which is not to say that surgery wouldn’t have kept me alive, but I’m quite certain the quality of my life would not have been what it has been for the past five years.

Jan Pedersen and I got to stand near the cherry trees planted in our names and then we opened a small cage and released seven white doves into the sky. The woman who had delivered the birds for the ceremony came from Bethlehem, Pa.–about a 90-minute drive away. She said the white messengers would be home before she. “They can fly about 80 miles an hour with the right wind conditions,” she told us.

The cherry tree and the white dove have become for me symbols of hope and freedom and my celebration of life as a cancer survivor.

My faith in God has been strengthened in my five-year odyssey, not because I’m convinced that God has something to do with my survival (which I am), but because I made the trip with fellow sufferers and cancer treatment experts who in their pursuit of knowledge and tools to combat this killer disease humbly acknowledge that medicine alone does not heal, no more than it causes a tree to grow or a dove to wing its way home.


Thanks to Natalie Bounds-Adams, the alumni director at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, for correcting my error in suggesting that the CitiPlex Towers had ever been sold. The towers are still owned by the university. My editing of the essay reflects her correction. (ARA–July 25, 2008)

Seeing old movies in a better light

Friday, July 4th, 2008

July 4, 2008–Revisiting movies

Teaching developmental psychology to freshmen and sophomores as a young professor gave me a great opportunity to test a theory I had about how students read.

I asked my classes to read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Of course, they all complained they’d had to read that book in high school English. Those that didn’t complain smugly thought they faced a cake-walk assignment. They could skim enough to pass any quizzes I might give.

But interesting things happened as we read (i.e., re-read) and discussed that book.

Almost every student in the class confessed that the book seemed different to them as they read it this time. The language didn’t shock them the way it had when they were first exposed to it; they viewed Holden Caulfield in a completely different light, they mostly said. Best of all from my perspective, they read with an analytic mind toward adolescence instead of with the defense of a life-style most of them had experienced as teens themselves.

What had changed? Not Salinger’s writing; it was the same text they’d read four or five years earlier.

Of course, they had changed; they had grown older; their perspective had matured; their readiness to deal with adolescent development had awakened, and I was rewarded because almost to a person the students thanked me for having them re-read the novel.

Recently, I’ve been having a similar experience with films. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix, I’ve been re-watching some older movies and have developed a completely different attitude and appreciation of them. This experience has reinforced my challenge to our culture’s tyranny of the new.

I offer three examples of films that have moved near to the top of my favorites list because I revisited them. Prior to my reviewing them, they had been enigmatic to me; they were films I should have liked better than I did. All three had won great accolades when they were new, but they didn’t impress me when I viewed them.

Now, more than a decade later in some instances, my reviewing of them has allowed me to see their greatness, and at least two of them have moved into that constantly flowing category of “all-time favorites.”

The first is The Mission, a British film produced in 1986 starring Robert DiNiro and Jeremy Irons. It is a historic depiction of Jesuit missionaries working in South America and their conflict with commercial interests that sought to enslave the natives to whom the Jesuits were ministering.

When I first viewed this film, I saw it as a swashbuckling adventure story that focused on the repentance and conversion of a hardened mercenary. The film ends in tragedy and disappointment as the mission outpost is overrun and the heroes are slain. I concluded The Mission was a downer of a film.

This month, in re-watching the film, I see it as a sad but powerful telling of the power of faith even in failure. The film has become for me more of a challenge to my own comfort zone regarding faith than a historical rendering of a sad period in church history.

I noted in my newfound appreciation that Church Times magazine, the Anglican journal of news, opinion and culture, listed the 50 best religious movies of all time and placed The Mission at the top of its list.

Any argument I had with that placement would be nitpicking; this is a great movie and has become one of my favorites.

To understand my new appreciation for a second movie, one has to know that my ethnic background is that of Newfoundland. My parents emigrated from that British dominion (it has since become part of the Canadian Confederation) in the North Atlantic early in the 20th century and raised a family in Brooklyn, New York, that was more rooted in Newfoundland than in America.

Thus, it was with great anticipation in 2001 that I welcomed the film, The Shipping News, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and starring Kevin Spacey and Judy Dench. The film tells the story of Quoyle, a journeyman pressman who marries a slut, has a daughter, and watches his life spin away from him.

An aunt shows up at his door looking for the ashes of her brother, Quoyle’s father. She convinces Quoyle to relocate to their family’s old home in Newfoundland, where Quoyle stumbles into a job reporting on the coming and goings of ships in the local harbor.

The movie, to me as a 2001 viewer, was dark and convoluted and struck me as filled with juveniles who refused to grow. Its depiction of Newfoundland was stark and almost without hints of any joy that I’d known was a part of life in the outports of my parents’ homeland.

Seeing the film a second time turned me about 180 degrees. I realized that Newfoundland is a character in the film and that through it Quoyle finds strength, happiness, and new life. I heard the accents of the natives (especially in the lines of Wavey Prowse, played by Julianne Moore) and was struck by their subtle authenticity that I knew from being surrounded as a boy by Newfoundland dialect. The film remains dark and quirky—but, hey, that’s Newfoundland.

The Shipping News, like The Mission, has moved into the top echelons of my all-time favorite movies.

Most recently, another film I’d pretty much written off when I first saw it came back to life for me, the 1997 thriller, Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

As Newfoundland was a character in The Shipping News, so Greenland is a character in Smilla.

The movie begins with an apocalyptic episode of a Greenland seal hunter at the turn of the 20th century who is overwhelmed in the aftershock of an asteroid that crashes into the barren tundra where he is hunting. Fast-forward to Denmark in the 1990s.

A Greenlander, Smilla Jasperson (played by Julia Ormond), who lost her mother and conflicts with the partner of her rich father, is now living in Copenhagen. Smilla cannot accept the hasty conclusion that a young boy—a neighbor and fellow Greenlander–died when he fell from the roof of their apartment building. Her investigation, including her “reading” of the child’s footprints in the snow on the roof, suggests he was frightened into running and falling off the roof.

Thus begins her convoluted, thrilling and enthralling quest for the truth behind the child’s death. As one might guess, the death and the asteroid are linked by greedy scientists and entrepreneurs.

When I first viewed this movie, I must have been mistakenly lured into thinking I’d be viewing a disaster movie; strangely, I found it difficult to recall all but the opening scenes of the movie. This time around I found myself intrigued by Smilla’s persistent amateurish detective work as well as with her persistent and strong feminist attitudes.

To be sure, the movie is flawed, including the convenience of her wealthy father who funds her romps in search of evidence; her unnecessarily harsh clashing with the young woman who has replaced her mother at her father’s side; the fanatic caricature of the secretary who gives her key direction to clues, and the shoot-‘em-up final episodes that diminish the power of the on-location filming in Greenland. The stuttering romance with her neighbor mechanic who assists her in her pursuit of truth and justice—often without her cooperation—also proves a bit clumsy.

Nevertheless, Smilla won me over on a second viewing and gave me a new appreciation for the beauty of Greenland. Smilla’s Sense of Snow didn’t jump to the top of my favorites list, but it moved up significantly.

All of this is to say that re-viewing movies can be a rewarding and enriching experience, and I recommend it heartily, especially now that Netflix makes older films so accessible.

I’m afraid, however, you’ll still have to go to the bookstore if you’re looking to review Catcher in the Rye. To date, no one has gotten Salinger’s permission to write a screenplay or to adapt the story for the big screen.