I have always loved the movies. Like every grade school kid watching reruns, I cried when Bambi’s mother died, and when starry eyed Judy Garland clicked her heels and said, “There’s no place like home!” But when the big budget films hit the screen in my early pre-teen years—Ben Hur, Camelot and Lawrence of Arabia, I was irretrievably hooked. Sitting in a dark theater, I could escape from actual or imagined troubles. Some people prefer live theater, but for me it was always the big screen, where I could pretend to be Guinevere as Lancelot leaned in for a kiss, or Holly Golightly, or Cleopatra, up close, more real than in real life. By high school I was reading the film critic’s reviews in our local paper, and by college I had my favorites. Pauline Kael was far too esoteric for me—my “go to guys” were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert with their trademark “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”
I was channel surfing last night and I just happened upon CNN which was airing a documentary film about Roger Ebert, his career and his struggle with cancer called “Life Itself” from his memoir of the same title. I had been aware that Ebert had been battling head and neck cancer for years before his death but I was not well versed in the details of his illness. Roger Ebert was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma of the thyroid in 2002, typically a rather low grade cancer treated primarily with surgery. Unfortunately he was unlucky and the cancer recurred, ultimately necessitating removal of his lower jaw with subsequent loss of his larynx, and his ability to speak and swallow. What was unique about Mr. Ebert was that unlike many public figures, especially those in the visual media whose jobs sometimes depend on facial appearances, he chose not only to go public with his illness, but to ENGAGE his many fans and followers in his day to day struggles via his website, his blog, and his Twitter account. He allowed Steve James, the documentary filmmaker, to film him not only on his best days, but also on his worst. He smiled and joked for the camera nearly immediately after his radical mandibulectomy and neck dissections, even as he was being suctioned for the secretions which if left untended would choke him. His wife Chaz, his stepchildren and grandchildren were equally generous, at a time when the family was undergoing much pain and hardship. He clearly had his demons and his days where he wanted to quit, but ultimately he was buoyed by the support he received from not only his fans, but from directors and actors he had at times panned. To see Martin Scorcese pause to wipe a tear on camera when discussing his friend was a window into what this person meant to his friends and peers.
What I had forgotten, and was reminded of while watching the documentary, was that Ebert was not the only member of the Siskel and Ebert team who suffered from cancer. Gene Siskel was operated on for glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor, in the spring of 1998. Only his wife knew of the diagnosis—he chose not to even tell his children. He was back at work nearly immediately, and only when he became symptomatic again in early 2009, did he request a leave of absence from his show. He died of complications of a second surgery to deal with recurrence in February 1999. His friend and colleague Roger Ebert only learned the truth about the disease on a Friday, just days before he died, and had planned to see him on Monday. Siskel died that weekend. Ebert and his wife were devastated that they had not known, and had not been able to convey the love that was in their hearts. I can only imagine how his other friends and family felt.
In my career, I have seen it both ways. I have had patients who have their entire families with them for each treatment, who have written books about their illness, who have blogged about it, who have made public appearances and who have been pillars of support groups. I have also had patients who were absolutely adamant that no one, sometimes not even spouses or children, should know about their cancer and treatment. The reasons have been many—fear of unemployment, fear of upsetting loved ones, fear of being seen as weak or ill, and in one case, a minister who feared that his congregation would see his illness as punishment for prior sins. But the common denominator was always one thing: fear.
My patients generally have made up their own minds about what to reveal and to whom. I respect their decisions and support them in whatever way that I can. But when they do ask me, I always tell them that it is better not to take this particular journey alone. Not every movie has a well-executed plot or a happy ending. But as Siskel and Ebert would always say, there is joy in the characters you meet and love along the way.