When the news broke that President Bush felt a shortness...

Coping/Mortal Matters

May 20, 1991|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

When the news broke that President Bush felt a shortness of breath while jogging, the rest of the country held its breath as well. The illness of a president is a reminder that power never guarantees immortality.

Ironically, the president's illness and the dark fears it prompted came soon after Democrat Paul Tsongas entered the presidential race, bringing with him an unprecedented claim for a presidential candidate -- as well as a reason to marvel at the strength human beings often show in the face of their own mortality.

Tsongas is a cancer survivor, a man who left a promising Senate career in order to battle for his life after he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1983.

Tsongas survived. What's more, he can claim to be cured. His doctor says that the chances his cancer will return are minimal.

Tsongas shares that victory with a growing number of Americans.

According to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., more than 7 million Americans have a history of cancer; 3 million of them were diagnosed five or more years ago. Most of those survivors can also be considered "cured." They no longer have any evidence of the disease and their life expectancy is not affected by having a bout with cancer as part of their medical history.

Some forms of cancer are still almost invariably fatal, but others have encouraging survival rates. The simple word "cancer" can no longer be considered a guilty verdict from a hangin' judge.

Society has also made some strides in understanding the disease, but it still has a long way to go. Several years ago "cancer survivor" was considered a contradiction in terms.

I once heard a story that illustrated the stigma often associated ,, with cancer. A man who had beaten the disease attended a party only to be served a drink in a paper cup while everyone else drank from a glass. Cancer isn't contagious, but this host and hostess evidently considered their guest something of a leper.

Stories like that seem to be rarer these days. It may be that public education efforts are having some effect. Then, too, the advent of AIDS, an even deadlier condition, has put more familiar diseases into a different perspective.

Even so, cancer survivors still face lingering discrimination. They sometimes have difficulty getting insurance or convincing employers their health is not a problem.

In that sense, Tsongas' candidacy may be the best thing to happen to cancer survivors in a long time -- and a good lesson for the country itself. Few things can be more grueling than a presidential campaign, with its relentless schedule and constant pressures. To see Tsongas undertake a run for the presidency is to understand that it is possible not just to survive cancer but also to pursue goals as big as the presidency.

For his part, Tsongas has said he considers his candidacy the "obligation of his survival." Certainly the pace of a campaign will demonstrate his physical recovery. It will also show that, like everyone else, cancer survivors should be limited only by their own ambitions and abilities, not by wrong-headed stigmas.

It's worth remembering that regardless of how spotless their medical records may be, presidents and presidential candidates are as mortal as the rest of us. And even though we prefer to forget it, there's one thing all we mortals share. We're all terminal.

Do you have a story about surviving cancer or other deadly diseases? Write to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, Universal Press Syndicate, 4900 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64112.

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