I just finished reading “The Day I Started Lying to Ruth: A Cancer Doctor on Losing His Wife to Cancer.” The author, Peter Bach, is a physician, epidemiologist and writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where he is Director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcome. He is a gifted communicator and this is a compelling–if sad and sobering–essay.
I was shocked and dismayed to learn that Dr. Bach’s wife, Ruth, died in January 2012 from metastatic breast cancer. She was 46.
I recalled the Bachs from a 2011 series of blog posts in the New York Times. The seven-part series started with “When the Doctor’s Wife Has Cancer” in February 2011 and concluded with April 2011’s “Back to Work and Life With a Fresh Perpective.” In the April 2011 installment, all seemed well–Ruth’s hair had grown back following the conclusion of her chemo. The piece ends with the couple enjoying a gorgeous day at the beach with their son, a happy ending to what had been a frightening chapter in their lives.
So how could this woman possibly have died a mere nine months later? Bach did not assign a time frame to his New York Times 2011 series–as many readers probably did, I assumed Bach was writing about events in real time, but that wasn’t the case. In his most recent article, we learn that Ruth was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. So the New York Time series actually described events from three years prior.
Still, even with this timeline clarification, the news is no less incomprehensible. In June 2011, just a few a months after the publication of the NYT series–and three years from her first diagnosis–the Bachs learned Ruth had a metastatic recurrence. She died eight months later in January 2012.
Bach’s thoughtful NYT series included this March 2011 reflection on the risk of breast cancer recurrence. A mere three months after that story was printed, he and Ruth learned her cancer was back (after three years), and this time it was incurable.
How awful for all concerned.
When I read Dr. Bach’s account of his wife’s experience with metastatic breast cancer, I felt a familiar blend of emotions: sympathy for Bach and his young son, anger that yet another young life was lost and despair that even people as smart and well-connected as the Bachs were powerless against this insidious disease.
Mother’s Day is this Sunday, May 11, 2014. It will be hard day for the Bach family as well as the families of some of their fellow Memorial Sloan-Kettering patients who lost young mothers to metastatic breast cancer, including two who shared their diagnosis online and in print:
The following women were not MSKC patients and not all of them were mothers. But they were all too young:
“We need focused research to change incurable metastatic breast cancer into a treatable, chronic condition like HIV-AIDS–where patients can now live for 20-30 years with treatment after their diagnosis,” says Shirley Mertz, President of MBCN. “If gay men, who were then scorned by society in the 1980s, could demand and receive focused research and treatments for their disease, why can’t we women–who are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers AND over half of the population–receive similar research that will find strategies to keep us alive for 20-30 years?
“Are we not worthy of this effort? Are we ignored because we quietly live with our disease?”
Well, are we?