Ken Burns’ much-anticipated PBS series titled Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies — based on Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer — starts tonight and continues on March 31 and April 1. Many have set their sights and DVRs on this series.
I am one of the few who will not be watching.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Ken Burns’ work. His Civil War series is my favorite, and he has a deserved reputation for excellence. I’m sure the series will be poignant, enlightening, and worth watching.
But a huge part of my cancer-diagnosis-and-treatment collateral damage has been PTSD, and this condition often dictates what I can and cannot tolerate. My internal censor knows me well and monitors what I should be exposed to. Listening to my censor has helped me avoid the pitfalls that stir up flashbacks, fear, and anguish.
Sometimes I ignore the PTSD flags because my desire to read/watch something on cancer overrides my good judgement. After all, like so many people, I’m curious to know more about this disease. However, unlike many people, I must pick up the pieces with my therapist and Xanax.
So, when choosing between the short-term gratification of watching a great series on cancer and my long-term mental health, I must choose the latter.
I admit, my curiosity recently got the better of me, whispering sweet temptations in my ear, and I watched — transfixed and mesmerized — a trailer of the PBS series.
I saw a scene where an elderly man was crying because he had to temporarily stop chemotherapy so he could physically heal. I watched his tears, as he was told, possibly by a hospice worker, that it was okay if he decided to stop chemotherapy and live out the rest of his life suffering less.
And I felt extreme empathy stir within me during that heart-breaking scene. I felt a gut-punch and horror and anguish, as well as memories of my own treatments. If I felt all of this just watching a few-minute clip, how could I endure watching an entire series of story after story?
I hate to admit this, and this is the first time I’ve ever admitted this: a couple of years ago I attempted to read The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I had heard rave reviews of this Pulitzer-prize winning book, and I just knew it would be excellent. Deep in my psyche I knew I should not be reading it, but I clicked the Place Your Order button on Amazon anyway.
Only a day into reading, I started crying. But I forced myself to continue with the book. I wanted to read it, as emotionally difficult as it was, because I knew it was a masterpiece and I didn’t want to deprive myself of experiencing this great book. So I shook and sobbed through the next few pages. I finally shut the book in frustration and gave it to Goodwill, hoping someone else would find it useful.
I felt like a failure and inadequate for giving up then. And come to think of it, I still do.
How can so many people read this book, and I fail at it? What kind of weak individual cowers at renowned cancer literature?
When I discovered this book was being made into a PBS series, I was initially elated because I believed the television version would make the book content more palatable to me. I figured I would be able to know the essentials of what the book covered without the torture of reading it. Yes, I would watch it, though my censor threw up many warning signs.
But reality has set in. Although I really want to watch the series, I’m going to pass.
I know many cancer bloggers will be writing on this Ken Burns series, and I am looking forward to reading their posts: Finding out information second-hand works better for me than watching the actual series.
Unfortunately, one of the Emperors in my world is PTSD and I must take heed.
Are you watching Ken Burns’ Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies?
How do you feel about reading/hearing/watching stories about cancer?