When I was traveling this fall, I watched the movie Me Before You over two flights. A dashing rich young Will Traynor became paralyzed from a car accident. Despite his family members and caregivers trying to cheer him up, he didn’t see his condition improving so asked his family to end his life (sorry for the spoiler). The ending was a surprise, which really got me thinking. Recently I also had a good discussion about it with my girlfriends. They thought Will was good and real, but I didn’t think very highly of him. His brain was still very sharp, and he had good connections to make a difference in the world. If he wasn’t so rich, had a wife and kids to support, could he afford to die?
Today at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, Eric Winer gave the William L. McGuire Memorial Lecture. He discussed the recent development and challenges of breast cancer treatment. At the end he talked about his own history. He was born with hemophilia and frequented hospitals as a child, at a time when the life expectancy of hemophilia patients was 20. When he was 13, Factor VIII became available which with injections every 5 days, he could be symptom free. This motivated him to be a doctor. Since Factor VIII was isolated from blood donors, he got HIV infection in 1989 and was kicked out by his dentist. With the development of HAART, a cocktail taken daily for HIV patients, he can live with HIV. Then it turns on HIV infection from blood donors also often accompanies hepatitis C, so he had to take 2 more years of interferon and ribaviron to treat hepatitis C. In 2003, he got GI vascular shunt from the HIV treatment and liver necrosis, which he had to take a surgery to bypass. Despite these harrowing experiences, he now has a lovely family with 3 successful kids, and appears as healthy and energetic as ever. He thanked biomedical research, also the US healthcare system for giving him access to newest drugs to treat his conditions. So the hope for cancer patients, at least in US, is also that with advances in biomedical research, cancer treatment will advance significantly in the coming years.
It was such a moving and motivational talk! Before I only knew Eric as the preeminent breast cancer oncologist, the head of our breast cancer SPORE, who always appears happy and confident. I didn’t know he had to live through so much, and even now has to regularly take the Factor VIII injection and HAART medication. He has all the excuses in the world to complain about his fate, and yet he has the optimism and grit to achieve so much in life. Actually looking around, many of my very successful relatives and colleagues have had personal or family tragedies, divorce, illness, or death (of loved ones), etc. And yet they had the optimism and grit to pull themselves together and try their best. Eric mentioned that growing up with hemophilia shaped him, so he was able to deal with later challenges in life. Compared to them, I feel so lucky and want to give my best to my work and the world.
So now I am even more convinced that Will should not commit suicide. Christopher Reeve didn’t commit suicide, instead he made his last 9 years of paralyzed life worthwhile and did so much good to the world. Even though Will’s illness was not curable at the time, there is always hope that a cure will be found with new biomedical research and development.