Words are powerful, and when spoken or written effectively and passionately by a person of prominence they can take on amplified meaning and become a beacon of awareness or a call to action.
On Wednesday night, as part of ESPN’s annual ESPY awards, SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award, named for basketball coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993. Valvano’s greatest professional accomplishment was leading North Carolina State to the NCAA men’s basketball title in 1983; arguably his greatest personal triumph was the speech he delivered at the ESPYs a decade later which spurred creation of the V Foundation for Cancer Research.
Scott has been receiving treatment for a rare form of cancer for the past seven years. His comments after receiving the award were heartfelt and inspirational.
“I listened to what Jim Valvano said 21 years ago, the most poignant words ever uttered in any speech, anywhere: Don’t give up, don’t ever give up,” Scott said. “So to be honored with this, I also have the responsibility to not ever give up. I’m not special; I just listened to what the man said.”
And aside from a beautiful tribute to his two daughters, the most moving comment from Scott’s address was a rallying cry for those facing the disease.
“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer,” he said. “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live.”
Those words would have significant meaning if spoken by your average citizen, but because they were said so publicly, so passionately by a person with a household name, their impact was magnified.
Dr. William Decker, radiation oncologist at the Susan O’Brien Fischer Cancer Center at Bothwell Regional Health Center, said when a celebrity speaks out about his or her medical condition, “It is kind of a two-edged sword in some ways. I think a lot of good has been done over the years with people becoming more comfortable with discussing it. … Celebrities with breast cancer, celebrities with testicular cancer … as they have come forward and talked about it, we have seen increases in people doing screening tests. So I think that part helps.”
But one drawback, as Decker sees it, is when those celebrities are seen as “knowledgeable or credible resources for information.” An example he offered is actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo bilateral mastectomies because, as noted on health.com, “(S)he carries a genetic mutation that puts her risk of developing breast cancer.”
“All of a sudden, we have seen nationwide an increase in women choosing to have that or wanting to have that done, when before they have been doing more breast conserving treatment,” Decker said. “There is really no other explanation other than that is what the celebrity got.”
Still, Decker sees positive outcomes from celebrities taking their medical conditions public, mainly because it gets the public more comfortable talking about impacts, preventions and possible cures.
“For many years, when someone had a cancer diagnosis, it was taboo to talk about it,” he said. “In some cultures, the doctors didn’t even tell the patient that they had cancer. Thankfully that has certainly been reversed.”
Scott said he is proof of the tangible benefits of the V Foundation’s work, which includes helping fund clinical trials like the one he is participating in to help find solutions to the cancer puzzle. But there is no singular answer, because cancer is not a singular puzzle.
“There is so much work to be done in so many different areas,” Decker said. “When we talk about doing research in cancer or finding a cure for cancer, it really is a misnomer … because there are thousands of different individual diseases that are all cancers, that all have different causes, that all have different treatments, that all respond to different things.”
While advancements are being made in many areas, one form of cancer that is lagging a bit is lung cancer. Decker said he believes that is because of the stigma our society has attached to it because many forms of lung cancer are caused by a personal choice — smoking. People diagnosed with breast cancer or prostate cancer are seen as victims, while lung cancer is viewed as a consequence of poor decision-making.
“Lung cancer is like somebody’s bad uncle who they want to ignore when he comes to the party because he’s out doing stuff that he shouldn’t be doing,” Decker said.
Bothwell’s Cancer Center treated 1,367 patients in its most recent fiscal year, which closed May 31. The most prevalent cancer treated at the center is lung cancer, followed by prostate, breast and colon cancers. According to the Department of Health and Senior Services, cancer is the second leading cause of death in Pettis and Benton counties, behind heart disease. The cancer incidence rate in Pettis County is 505.5 per 100,000 residents.
When a cancer diagnosis is made, “everyone responds a little differently,” Decker said. “Cancer has always been a life-changing diagnosis for people. They hear the word and it does strike terror in a lot of people and it has for many years. So as people are diagnosed with it, and come to grips with the fact that they have this now, we see them rise to the occasion.”
That response is among the most rewarding aspects of Decker’s job.
“Many times we hear cancer patients tell us that they don’t want to be viewed as a hero fighting a battle,” he said. “They want to be viewed as the same person they were last week but now they have this problem and they need to work on it.”