The Things His Father Taught Him

If you had asked me before today, I would have told you that I was beyond being inspired by cancer stories.  There are so many of them, and I have tried to share the ones that have been most meaningful to me with you. But today was different.  Today, Teddy Kennedy Jr. gave the keynote address at ASTRO. For those of you who don’t remember, Teddy Kennedy Jr was twelve years old in 1973, when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma—bone cancer that was widely considered fatal at the time.  Teddy is now Edward, and he is an all grown up cancer survivor who has dedicated his life to health care law. He told  endearingly funny jokes and family vignettes as an introduction—he said that in turn of the last century Boston, his grandmother used to go to his great grandfather’s political speeches because back then Irish Catholics couldn’t become doctors or lawyers so they went into politics, and seeing how they were quite “prolific in their ability to multiply” (his words), they succeeded in getting elected.  His grandmother was quite adamant that the children and grandchildren not waste their hard earned political clout—they had to DO something with their lives.

Edward Kennedy Jr told us all what it was like to have his father tell him that the doctors were going to remove “part” of his leg.  When he asked what part, assuming that it would be the raised red lump on his calf, his father told him that it would be “all of it”—the lower leg beneath the knee.  And that when the surgery was over, he would be getting an experimental chemotherapy regimen of high dose methotrexate at the Jimmy Fund, the part of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston where they treat children.  As he put it, this was at an age where having a pimple was a disaster, and having a bald head was unthinkable.  He talked about how, as a Kennedy only a few years after the assassination of both his uncle John and his uncle Bobby, he was expected to keep up a façade of being brave.  He spoke of what it was like to have people tell him that they “felt sorry for him”.  And about how, after the operation, the doctors would come in with their entourages of medical students and residents, and look at his stump, but not at him.  And he talked about how his father, Edward Kennedy Sr told him that the biggest obstacles he would face would be the ones he created for himself.  His leg was amputated in November.  He was skiing again by March.  His father died in 2009 of a malignant brain tumor.  By then, he was called “the Lion” of the United States Senate.

The last part of Edward Juniors talk was about survivorship.  He reminded us that it is okay to be sad and to feel loss when diagnosed with cancer, and of the importance of aftercare for psychosocial and emotional issues.   He talked about the fact that when a person with cancer leaves my care, and the care of the surgeon and the medical oncologist, that person becomes a person with a pre-existing illness.   He spoke about Obamacare, and what this legislation has done for people with cancer.  He called it a godsend.  Insurance companies can NO LONGER deny a cancer patient coverage because of their pre-existing condition.  They cannot drop that person, or charge outrageous sums.  They cannot deny that person access to potentially life saving clinical trials.  He spoke of the birth of his daughter eighteen years ago, and how that event was the culmination of everything he thought would never happen to him and how grateful he feels, to this day, to the physicians who treated him.

One in four of us will get cancer.  And many of us will die from it.  Do we want to be cancer victims?  Or cancer survivors?  Do we want to help those less medically fortunate than ourselves, or not?  It is time to decide.