Billionaire investor Warren Buffett hit international headlines today when he announced he has prostate cancer and he will begin radiation therapy in July. The Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO was candid and disclosed his health condition in vivid details.
He spoke about his scans, the PSA tests (Prostrate Specific Antigen), that help detect prostrate cancer early, and his future course of treatment such as radiation therapy.
“I feel great – as if I were in my normal excellent health — and my energy level is 100 percent” the WSJ reported him as saying.
“I will let shareholders know immediately should my health situation change. Eventually, of course, it will; but I believe that day is a long way off,” he said.
On the other side of the world, Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen immediately tweeted: “Don’t worry, he’ll live 20 more yrs. New prostate cancer treatment is good.”
There were thousands more who shared her optimism on twitter and other forms of social media.
Warren Buffett’s disclosure and Taslima’s tweet represent the two mutually complimentary aspects of a new trend that is changing the conversations on health emergencies and terminal illnesses: the person affected, however grave the condition is, takes control of the situation and talks about it openly in a confident and self-assuring manner and the public share his/her emotional strength and make healing a joint process.
No old style pitying and sympathy or stock market speculations, which perhaps Steve Jobs feared while keeping his pancreatic cancer and liver conditions completely private.
The patient is not a lonely person any more. Even in the dead of the night, there is somebody out there who is all ears for the most intimate details of his/her health. This is auto-suggestion and peer-support in modern era. In simple words, while the patient relieves his/her angst and feels optimistic, the reader learns how to cope with such situations. The patient becomes his/her role model.
The patient is selfless and emotionally naked. And certainly purposeful even in trauma.
In the West its been in vogue, although not consistently, for a while. We had heard Hollywood star Patrick Swayze being optimistic about his cancer treatment and baring it all while Farah Fawcett was peeved by the illness defining her life. The AIDS-era spawned a mini movement of “positive speaking” starting with tennis great Arthur Ashe, Ryan White and basketball Magic Johnson.
But none of it was a daily or minute-to-minute interactive conversations that happen today. The trend is catching up in India too, thanks to Twitter and social media.
The most recent and captivating such experience was the early morning blog entry by a 69-year-old Amithabh Bachchan when he said he was feeling intense pain in the stomach, while admiited in a hospital.
“So last night just after I had finished with the Blog, I rose from my desk to get to bed, but excruciating pain, stopped me in my tracks and I found it difficult to walk to stand to sit to lie down. Quite horrendous ! This was not there post operation even … so what really is the reason for it two months down the line ? I have no answer. But tomorrow there should be one as I prepare for a CT Scan, after devouring a large bottle or bottles of that yellow fluid, that shall line the internal organs so the scan can pick up any region that could be infected or being the cause for the pain,” the Bollywood star wrote.
This is immensely reassuring stuff for those who are scared of illnesses, scans and diagnosis. Bachchan’s sharing of pain and the lighthearted manner of being positive is what paid counsellors try to achieve with patients who shiver in fear of the unknown.
We also had cricketer Yuvraj Singh tweeting regularly on the progress of his cancer treatment from his Boston hospital.
Pictures and details of his chemotherapy, meeting with friends, and finally his remission were tweeted regularly. The message was how one’s indomitable will, with the help of modern medicine, can conquer fears and illnesses.
The first to start this trend in India in the recent past was Lisa Ray, the beautiful Canadian-Indian actress who had a touch-and-go tryst with death when she was afflicted with multiple myleoma. Her cancer trauma, survival and bounce-back with a tricky stem cell transplant inspired thousands including another beautiful south Indian actress Mamta Mohandas, who was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma at the peak of her career.
Mamta had a few setbacks and anxious moments, including the sheer intensity of radiation and chemotherapy, but got back to the screen with unprecedented vigour and vitality. As a survivor of cancer, she looked more ravishing on screen and was least reluctant to tell her story.
An excellent example of sharing and recovering in a community is the age-old Alcoholics Anonymous. Talking and sharing one’s condition and hearing the same from others is both cathartic and reassuring. Similar peer support groups are also encouraged in cancer hospitals. Now with social media, they come home.
Contrast this with the passage from an angry Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” that she wrote while she was fighting breast cancer.
“Our views about cancer, and the metaphors we have imposed on it, are so much a vehicle for the large insufficiencies of this culture, for our reckless improvident responses to our real ‘problems of growth,’ for our inability to construct an advanced industrial society which properly regulates consumption, and for our justified fears of the increasingly violent course of history,” Sontag wrote.
Sontag is quoted a lot in academic literature, but it makes one morbid and cold. However, Bachchan and Yuvraj touch millions of hearts and mitigate the pain and fear of less mortals. And now, an 81-year-old Warren Buffett does the same.