Cancer Columnist Jory Graham Knows Her Subject Only Too Well: She's a Victim Herself
Three years ago when she launched her coping-with-cancer column, "A Time to Live," in the Chicago Daily News, she wrote: "I am learning about courage...the kind of courage that is not equated with fearlessness but with grace." Now, 150 columns later, her words are syndicated weekly in 50 newspapers across the nation. Her audience is estimated at five million, and small wonder. Three million Americans now have cancer (more than 400,-000 die of it each year), and one in four Americans can expect to undergo its ravages in their lifetime. Says Irving Rimer, of the American Cancer Society, "Jory Graham has singlehandedly done more to publicly discuss the problems of advanced cancer and of death and dying than any other individual I know."
Jory, 53, first learned she had cancer in the right breast in 1975. Then it was discovered in her lower spine and thigh bone. She has undergone two mastectomies and now is enduring endocrine treatment that entails painful side effects. After being told she had only a year to live and going through the usual cycle of disbelief, rebellion and depression, she began her column, inspired by a story on Mother Teresa, the Nobel laureate of the Calcutta slums. "She showed me the way I could justify my life," Graham explains. "I am a writer, so I could help break down the emotional isolation of those who have cancer. I could try to show that a person with cancer can be just as functional, and more concerned, more caring and more loving, because his life is in danger." Six months after the launch of the column, Graham was approached to lecture on cancer, and she has now spoken in 35 cities.
One of her key themes is that the cancer patient should consider the affliction a chronic disease "like arthritis." The possibility of remission makes it more bearable. "If you have survived it once before," she says, "there is always a chance you can survive it again. I've done it six or seven times."
Graham also warns newly diagnosed cancer patients that they must prepare to become "the most segregated and socially ostracized people in the nation." She cites cruel examples like one sent in by a reader who was told by the office manager not to use the drinking fountain because it upset the other employees. Another sufferer reported he was the only person at a dinner served with a paper plate. Graham herself recalls the woman who snapped when she entered the pool of her former apartment house: "How have you got the nerve to swim here?"
In her column Graham advises cancer patients about death ("If you talk about it, it is less lonely"); diet ("You don't worry about calories if you are a cancer patient"); and dealing with emotional side effects of the disease ("I struggle with anger constantly," she says, "but a friend told me, 'Bitchy babes live longer' ").
When she learned she was afflicted, Graham began studying cancer with the dedication of a specialist. She has taken two years of continuing-education courses for physicians at Northwestern University Medical School. Her own oncologist (or tumor specialist), Dr. John Merrill, assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern, says: "If Jory was going down on an ocean liner, she'd find some way to help other people undergoing the same experience."
Graham often lectures to Merrill's classes. "She is so engaging and dynamic," he says, "that the students read her articles more often than they read my stuff." He also tells his students frankly "how many times Jory has refused to go along with something I recommend." In turn, Jory notes that Merrill is the first doctor to tell her honestly about the severity of her case. "I might have done things differently if anyone had told me the truth earlier," she says. "A patient has the right to know his diagnosis and his prognosis. What right does anyone else have to take away your decision-making ability about the rest of your life?"
Graham's own experience has given her many strong views on treatment. "Some cancer surgery should not be done," she insists. "It is criminal to take parts off people and try to restore them in some half-assed fashion." She believes that the decision on radiation treatment vs. mastectomy should be made by the patient rather than the doctor. "I am appalled," she says, "at the way women are railroaded into surgery. I get hundreds of letters from people who never even had a chance to learn that there was another possibility." She also urges readers that when a physician recommends surgery, an oncologist should be brought in for a second opinion. Her present course of endocrine treatment rather than the more traditional chemotherapy was Graham's own choice. "I don't have any breasts, and I'm goddamned if I'm going to be bald," she declares. "That is the ultimate indignity to me as a woman. There is a point at which my womanhood is so offended there would be nothing left of me."
Her strident approach alarms some. "Can't you do something about that woman to keep her quiet?" stormed a Northwestern surgeon to Dr. Merrill after Graham wrote a column advocating alternatives to mastectomy. But Graham's beliefs long antedate her own illness. Her late father was a doctor, she comments, "and he did not believe that patients had rights."
Raised in Chicago, she went to the University of Chicago, moved to New York to write advertising copy and came back home to marry a systems analyst in the mid-1950s. One day a fire destroyed their apartment. The next day she lost the baby she had been carrying less than three months. "It took me a long time to recover," she remembers. "A couple of years later I was divorced." Her cancer was diagnosed 14 years later.
She had turned to journalism in 1959, working as a stringer for TIME, writing two best-selling guidebooks to Chicago and becoming a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times "Weekender" section. Graham now writes her column from a plant-filled 41st-floor apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. She is finishing a book on cancer she hopes will help to change both the public's attitude toward the disease and the doctors' attitude toward its victims. The walls of her study are adorned with pictures of what she calls "my kids"—children with cancer to whom she gives advice and with whom she keeps in close touch.
She encourages them to plan for their future and, following her own advice, decided recently that since blondes have more fun, she would have her hair dyed. "I am getting more and more blond," she says, "and I just love it. Here I am with cancer, and the truck drivers whistle at me. It's just wonderful."
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