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Cancer And Addiction: Can You Compare The Two?



This summer I got an urgent voicemail message from my friend Florence. It was followed by several, even more urgent text messages; she had to see me as soon as possible, could we meet for brunch?

A few days later as I was sitting across from her and over mimosas, she broke the news; she had just been diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer.  It stole my breath. How could this happen? Florence is like me, committed to fitness, flea markets and fun; just a working mom, trying to provide the best life she can for her young daughter. And now she was in for a fight unlike any she’d ever known.  But she’s nothing if not determined and after a summer of grueling chemo treatments and radiation that made her luscious hair turn thin, dry and fall out, she looks like she’s turned a corner. But it was a horrible time as she thought about her mortality constantly, asking her doctors, God and friends the same three-letter question… Why?

So today, I wondered what Florence, and so many others, would make of Martin Sheen’s comments about his son Charlie; likening his battle with drug addiction to a form of cancer?

Personally, I do believe addiction is a disease but there’s something about this that struck me as odd. Unlike Charlie Sheen, Florence is not a big TV star with unlimited resources. She did not have a personal assistant or untold millions with which to fight this cancer. Florence, with her limited resources, dragged her weary butt to work on the days she wasn’t puking her guts out. She marshaled her friends, put together a plan, and fought as though her life depended on it because it did. But to compare what I have seen her and countless others go through, worrying about not just whether they’ll live or die but the quality of that life to a guy who won’t even publicly acknowledge he has a problem seems patently unfair.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying Charlie Sheen doesn’t need help; clearly he does.  But with each story more outrageous than the one before he’s squandering much of the good will he once enjoyed.  If he knows he has a problem it’s not one that he wants to change, even admitting that he went back to drinking because he was bored.

I’m not going to be too tough on Martin Sheen though, he’s a father watching his son slowly destroy himself. Like the families of so many addicts, he sounds weary, resigned to the fact that there really is only so much they can do. He knows it will be more of the same until Charlie recognizes he has a problem and gets help.

But therein lies the issue. For Charlie and his two million bucks per episode, life is a giant open bar, with drugs, girls and cars, each night a chance to outdo the last. Florence would eat a bail of hay everyday for the rest of her life if it would ensure she would remain cancer free; to see an endless supply of sunsets, to snuggle with her daughter, to laugh with friends over mimosas, to love.

Charlie Sheen has so much (including the love and support of his family) and is doing so little with it. Not so for Florence for whom each day is a gift and she will not squander it. I hope Charlie Sheen gets help but more than that I hope he sees he needs it. In the meantime, I’ll spend my time and energy on people who will use and appreciate it, like my friend Florence.

But what do you think of Martin Sheen comparing his son’s addiction to a form of cancer? Have you had experiences with addiction? What did you do?



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  2. Shauna

    February 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Although on first blush it seems like there’s no comparison, thinking about the destructive march of each condition makes me empathetic to Martin Sheen’s viewpoint. For some, there is no controlling the cancer no matter how aggressive the battle to beat it. I’ve seen addiction in my family and the battle is no less aggressive for those who see the destruction and want to stop it. You have to strip away the public image of Charlie to see him as an addict just like the one that fell asleep in a vacant building somewhere last night. All the riches and privilege around him and he feels low enough to choose drug(s) instead of a sober life. Addiction eats through your life and the lives of those who love you just like cancer does, leaving it changed forever. Like Chris Rock said about OJ, I don’t agree but I understand….

  3. juli

    February 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I’m a woman with cancer who has a son battling addiction. Let me first say that I don’t think anyone decides to be an addict. Some of us can experiment and play during our youth and then grow up and put it all behind us. But others can’t. And of what I see, the pain that addicts hold inside of them is more painful then the addiction. They don’t like what they see when they are sober, or something in their past is just too horrible to face. I’ve learned not to be an enabler, but believe me it is devestating to watch your child self destruct.
    Now lets talk my cancer. I sure as hell did not ask for this. But I guess some people out there could say that if I hadn’t had so much fun in my youth then I wouldn’t have contracted the HPV virus that caused my cancer. A few years ago when the vaccination came out, there was a lot of mud slinging and whore calling about girls like me. It was horribly painful to be considered unworthy of living because maybe I had sex with more than one man in my life. Well I am not going to apologize for liking sex. If I had had breast cancer, or brain cancer, there would be all kind of support and avenues for me to go, but no, I got the dirty cancer.
    My point is both me and my son are looked at as responsible for our fate in life. But the fact is neither one of us would have choosen the hand we were dealt.
    I think Charlie has somewhat of a point (though I do believe his words do ring of a “poor me” attitude). Cancer and addiction are incidious diseases, that bring down you financially, spiritualy, physically, and emotionaly. Their ruin families, cause heartache, and no one has any real control over them.
    I like to hold Robert Downey Jr has an example of beating the beast. I hope Florance can also be an example of beating the beast.
    I also hope my son one day ask for the help he needs. I will be there when he does.

  4. April Brucker

    February 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    I don’t think cancer and addiction are on the same par. While it is not a person’s fault they have cancer it is not an addict’s fault that they are an addict. However, comparing addiction to cancer is simplifying something very complicated. No one knows why someone becomes an addict. Some people say childhood, some people say a traumatic event, some people say an undiagnosed mental illness and some people say genetics. No one knows why. The truth of the matter is though, addiction is nonetheless a serious disease that has consequences that cancer does not. These consequences being jails, institutions and death.

    In addition, addiction is linked to some cancers like liver cancer, lung cancer, throat cancer, etc. Also, addicts are known to have other health issues such as Hep C, HIV, and other staff infections and STDs as a result of their behavior. Addicts are known to be lasts on transplant lists because of their behavior.

    However, it is wrong to put addiction on the same par with cancer. Addiction is it’s own illness and cannot be likened to anything else in the world. Addicts are people who live to use and use to live. Jails and institutions only put a temporary stop to the compulsion most of the time and unlike cancer patients, the thought of death does not scare these people. In addition, the burn out rate amongst addiction counselors is rather high because addicts are some of the most manipulative, cunning, self centered and entitled people in the world. To compare them to cancer patients is to not only try to simplify something complicated as I said, but also to try to explain something that cannot be explained.

    I have had many a friend have issues with addiction in my time. Some have come from good families and some not so much. It cannot be explained. A lot of time people try to explain it, brow beat, inflict guilt and look for answers assigning blame when the time would be much more well spent seeking help for their loved one. With an addict, time is of the essence. A cancer patient doesnt just overdose on chemo because they feel like it or commit suicide because they cannot cope with the fact that it is raining outside because they cannot have their drugs, an addict does.

    Lastly, I have buried both someone who died of cancer and someone who died as a result of addiction. The cancer patient had a sad funeral but wonderful stories were told about them and we all talked about how they were in heaven. The addict however, did not die with his dignity. Instead he was dragged along the ground kicking himself as he was down. At his funeral stories were told about the times he stole and about the addicental porno he made. However, in all this I remembered his was my friend and now he is gone. My heart breaks for him and his family knowing they slowly lost a brother and a son to this nonsense. With a cancer patient they die because they physically lose the battle. An addict dies because they spiritually lose. In a way that is a hell of a lot more heartbreaking and devistating to see someone just pull the plug on themselves. Martin Sheen you are way off on this one.

  5. nate

    February 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    As someone who recently lost a parent to stage IV cancer, I’m irritated that someone would equate the two…I can see how the comparison can be made, but I just don’t agree with it. If you are someone who had to watch someone very close to you quickly deteriorate due to a terminal illness, you will understand where I (and many others) are coming from.

  6. tammyele

    February 25, 2011 at 3:51 am

    I argue that disease is disease. Having been “put on the alert” for possibly having cancer (I don’t know what was more horrific, the possibility of the disease, or the feuding physicians who took months to give me a final diagnosis), and ending up with a “nobody knows what’s wrong with you” condition that had my hair falling out, skin sloughing off, me staring at the wall for most of the day with lack of appetite (yet ballooning up 30 lbs in 2 months), culminating with a ravaging surgery from which it took years to recover. Being unable to work for the last three years because I don’t have the energy to move, I’ve sold everything I own except for my car, phone and computer, because if I ever hope to get better, those three things are necessities. Because of this condition I no longer have health insurance, or even a regular place to live, and most days I cannot afford food. I went from being on top of the world to bottom of the barrel in zero to 60 flat. I don’t belittle cancer what-so-ever, however I do think a lot of understanding, money, and sympathy immediately go to cancer patients that other diseases can’t hope to have. I have quite a few friends that have been diagosed with different forms of cancer while I’ve been sick (it’s alarming really). I feel I can understand their pain (though I don’t dare say so), because the symptoms, reactions and consequences of treatment they describe often mirror my own. There are, however, things more dibilitating than cancer — as one of the posts points out, addiction can be just as devastating, if not more so. But the one thing my journey has taught me is to be more open minded — I cannot assume my fight is tougher, harder, more ravaging than the next person. They’re just different fights. With a different disease. Just so happens one is more accepted, understood and garners more sympathy than many, many others.

  7. Rene Syler

    February 25, 2011 at 6:29 am

    @tammyele: Thank you for your comment, your heart and your compassion. Hang in there, sometimes it’s one step at a time, one day at a time, sometimes even, one moment at a time. Bless you!

  8. M.E. Johnson

    February 25, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    I only know that when it’s happening to you or yours, you might feel that way. How many things are someone’s “worst nightmare”? Everything from a mugging to i.d. theft to kidnapping. If that’s how he feels, that’s how he feels. I guess, as April B. says, one is an honorable condition, the other is not.

  9. Christina

    March 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I never experienced addiction at all but I do feel for the fact that Charlie seems totally unaware of what this could do to his children. There has to be something else going on in his brain. I wish someone would just shake him and say “shut up about yourself and look at how this is affecting your kids.” How do you think they will like seeing this in the media when they are grown? How do you think they will feel? Are they even on your radar?
    As for Florence, my heart goes out to her. She is truly a remarkable woman and I will pray that she has strength and get’s better. There is no comparison. Florence is a hero. Charlie is just a jerk. In a way my heart breaks for both and their families involved.

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