One of the questions the Value of Suffering project asks is whether suffering responds to reason. It struck me as a valuable question. Why? Because if we can change the experience of suffering by the way we approach it in our minds, then perhaps we don’t need wholly to be suffering’s victims. My own observation has been that the way a person responds to their suffering can be formed, at least in part, by reasoning.
My partner was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer at the end of 2011. She has had surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. All at public expense, and all brilliantly, expertly, and compassionately delivered. But the treatments have not eradicated the cancer, and now it’s terminal.
Throughout, something has become very clear: that there is a distinction between the cancer itself, and the experience of being a person with cancer. Both involve suffering, of course. The cancer itself causes physical pain, tiredness, and a range of other problems. These get worse over time, and there’s no choice about them – although there are medications to help control them. But what it’s like to be a person with cancer does involve choices. People with cancer react in different ways. Some want to be fully engaged, while others want not to think about their illness. Some want to pursue every possible treatment, and others want to balance quality of life with undesirable side-effects. Some want to be part of a community of sufferers, joining support groups and so on – while others want to keep it private andpersonal.
My partner has tried to be very well-informed by equipping herself with the knowledge and ideas to work with the doctors to take treatment decisions together. She has worked at being a jointly responsible partner, not a passive patient. This creates a relationship with the doctors that is itself, it seems to me, an emotionally important part of the treatment process. It’s a relationship of mutual respect, and therefore of self-respect. This is because it helps both parties – doctor and patient – feel they are working as a team on dealing with the illness. It helps to create some emotional distance between the illness and the person, so the person isn’t defined by the illness.
Being well-informed has helped to give my partner a role and responsibility in deciding how to be a person with cancer. How to suffer.
I am absolutely not joining the chorus of popular opinion that says a positive outlook helps the sufferer ‘fight’ or ‘battle’ their cancer. I’ve never met anyone with advanced cancer who knows what this language means. In fact, I would say it’s a morally bankrupt position, because it results in blaming the ‘loser’ for their own defeat.
Rather, what I’m saying is that being an informed, engaged patient seems to give the person with cancer a range of choices in how they react to, and deal with, their cancer. It means that whatever the illness does to them, they still have some autonomy in how they react. It helps the self, or we could say the identity, or even the uncompromised person, to survive intact through the course of the disease – and I think that means, in my partner’s case, that the suffering is less acutely felt.
I think the fact that the experience of suffering can change depending on how much we know about its cause suggests that the way a person deals with their suffering can be formed, at least in part, by reasoning. Of course, responding to suffering by seeking knowledge may not be easy.
The public language of suffering is emotional, not rational. The question asked of the sufferer is not ‘what do you think?’, but ‘how do you feel?’ And when illness strikes, we are offered emotional support, not access to knowledge.
But if the sufferer wants to apply reason, and is able to obtain the knowledge they need, then perhaps the suffering can indeed be affected by how much is known and understood about its cause. We say knowledge is power, after all.
Dee Amy-Chinn died on 3 December, 2015