The prospect of sitting in an icy, air-conditioned movie theater on a hot summer day makes me reach for my cable knit cardigan. This happens to be the perfect attire for seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a new documentary about beloved children’s television personality Fred Rogers. Before summer is over, I recommend you grab your sweater and go see it, too, if you can find it playing in a theater near you. It is uplifting, fun, and fondly reminiscent but not adulatory. It ponders deep insights into humanity, the world we live in, childhood, and the meaning of life. And, cancer. Yes, cancer.
Fred Rogers passed away at age 74 of stomach cancer in 2003. This fact is not dwelled upon in the movie, but it is there and caught my attention, an occupational hazard of being executive director of the Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County. In the spirit of Mr. Rogers’ gentle, matter-of-fact way of confronting frightening things, I left the movie determined to do a little reading about stomach cancer. But the movie reminded me of an even more important lesson that I have learned during my time at the Cancer Resource Centers. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Stomach cancer is found more often in older people, with the average age of diagnosis 68. It is twice as common in men than in women. Stomach cancer is difficult to diagnose, in part because some of the symptoms are just common problems that we all experience occasionally like stomach pain and indigestion. In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” we find out that Mr. Rogers “had stomach problems all his life.” This could have had something to do with his later cancer diagnosis, but it might have had nothing to do with it. Stomach cancer is not usually discovered while still in its early stages, which makes it more difficult to treat. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, bloating, and a feeling of fullness even after eating small meals.
There is much to read about the connection between the H. pylori bacterium and stomach cancer. H. pylori is a spiral-shaped bacteria found in the stomachs of about two-thirds of the world’s population but more common in developing countries. It is now known that H. pylori is responsible for most stomach ulcers, and the chronic inflammation resulting from the infection may play a role in stomach cancer. Stomach ulcers are painful and H. pylori can be treated. Seeking medical evaluation for pain and bothersome health problems is always good advice.
If I had a hand puppet of “X the Owl,” it would be time to get it out and have X say, in his most instructive voice, we can reduce our risk of cancer, but we cannot “prevent” all cancers. It would be hard to find a better role model for a healthy lifestyle than Mr. Rogers. He meticulously practiced the standard good-health advice for preventing cancer and other health problems. He was a vegetarian, swam a mile every day, kept his weight down, never smoked or drank, and had access to the finest medical care available during his lifetime. Yet, he got cancer.
One of our patient navigators here at the Cancer Resource Center, Jill Longcrier, has suggested that we remove cancer “prevention” from our vocabulary in favor of “risk reduction.” This is because, no matter what we do, some cancers will still happen, and “if only I” is not a helpful line of thinking. Cancer happens, and it sometimes happens to life-long vegan marathon runners.
Cancer has taken too many of our loved ones too soon, and I, for one, wish Mr. Rogers was still around. In his gentle, matter-of-fact way, let’s confront cancer by learning what we can and living our healthiest life.