Suffering Is A Personal Thing

On most Sundays, I watch Sunday Morning, a CBS news magazine that began long ago with Charles Kuralt, the great chronicler of back road America, as its first host. I’ve loved and watched the show for more than three decades, and this morning, I caught a thoughtful piece about Kathy Bates, the actress from Fried Green Tomatoes and Misery (among others), who has now survived two different cancers and become a spokesperson for lymphedema, a side effect of many cancer therapies that leaves patients with swollen, misshapen, and often painful limbs due to an accumulation of fluid in the soft tissues. Given cancer’s often poor prognosis, it is tempting to think that lymphedema certainly beats the alternative, but such thinking ignores the extent to which the illness story determines the degree of suffering.  For Bates, lymphedema meant frequent trips for compression and massage therapy to decrease the swelling, which caused her great emotional distress. Her work as a spokesperson for this problem, which is much more prevalent than many high-profile diseases, has offered her comfort and redemption during a difficult period in her life, and helped relieve the significant suffering associated with the side effect of what has otherwise been successful treatment of a potentially lethal disease.  Quite a story, and one that is essential for her physicians to understand if they hope to provide her with the best possible care.

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