The Chilean Miners and Cancer Patients

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Last night, millions of people around the world were glued to their TVs watching the successful rescue of the miners in Chile, who were trapped in a small chamber about 2,300 feet below the surface.

miners.jpgFor 17 days after the accident on Aug. 5, we didn't know their fate, and the whole world became skeptical that any of the miners would survive. But when we learned that they were still alive, all of us became hopeful that there was a chance to bring them back to the surface, alive.   

Although no one really knows these men, no one can recall their names and it is highly unlikely that we will ever meet them in person, last night we all cheered when the first man emerged from the small capsule back into the real world. We watched and cheered because this drama represented human triumph after months of unprecedented endurance.

The first thing that came to my mind as I watched is how many similarities this experience has with what cancer patients go through. Many patients and their families face a long period of uncertainty while getting their "rescue" version of anti-cancer therapy. We do not have precise measurements to predict who is going to be cured and who is not. Patients frequently have to wait until the end of therapy and many years later to learn whether they are cured.  
Similarly, the miners, their families and the entire world had numerous doubts about their final results. But the tremendous support from their families, friends and the public gave them a great sense of optimism, so they never lost hope. Recent studies showed that cancer patients who have social support also fare better.

Second, these men had to endure living underground in unprecedented conditions for more than two months before they were rescued. It took time, consultations, excellent planning, a team effort and patience to save their lives. There was no magic bullet.

What was amazing is that the miners and families understood that, and remained calm and collected throughout the lengthy ordeal. Taking shortcuts and reacting under pressure could have resulted in a different outcome.

But the last and most striking observation was how that these miners decided to surface back into our world.  They all shaved, took showers and put on clean clothes. They wanted to get back as soon as possible to their normal lives. Anyone would have understood, and perhaps would have been more sympathetic, if these men surfaced with shaggy long beards and dirty clothes. But after living that long with anxiety, uncertainty and fear, they elected to return to their normal lives rather than gain sympathy. That is a tremendous state of mind, and anyone should admire that. 

Younes.jpgOver the years, I have met and taken care of so many patients who came from different walks of life, different ages, tumor status and had various toxic treatments. I always admired those who took the time and made the effort, despite this most stressful period in their lives, to present themselves to their families, caregivers and the surrounding world in their best "normal" way, keeping a sense of optimism and courage. Somehow, I always felt that those patients did better. So did these miners.

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