Almost fifteen million Americans have cancer and over fifteen million Americans are alcoholics according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Cancer is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Alcoholism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Lung cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer worldwide. Smoking cigarettes, a personal choice, is the most common cause of lung cancer. Drinking alcohol, a personal choice, is a requirement to become an alcoholic. Many forms of cancer are treatable. Alcoholism is treatable, too.
There are many parallels between cancer and alcoholism. So why do we treat these two diseases so differently?
Every week in my church, worshipers ask us to pray for family and friends who have been diagnosed with cancer. I watch as eyes drop, shoulders droop and heads shake slowly at the insidious nature of this relentless and tragic disease. Our church has a meals committee that springs into action to coordinate a rotation of dinner deliveries for families that are dealing with cancer treatments. There are offers to pick up kids from school and drive them to soccer practice. There are offers to mow lawns and care for pets. Tears are shed and prayers are prayed. There are lots of big, heartfelt, squeezy hugs. This is spirituality in action, and it is beautiful to see.
And yet, I can recall only one time in the past decade when a member of my church asked us to pray for an alcoholic friend. The church congregant said, “My friend has fallen off the wagon. He is causing lots of problems for his family.” Eyes dropped, shoulders drooped and heads shook – but not out of sorrow for the tragedy that had stricken the alcoholic. Rather, a sense of this alcoholic man’s failure to perform the basic functions of husband and father left our congregation with a sense of disapproval for his misconduct. The alcoholic’s family was the victim, but he was the evildoer. No meals were offered. No hugs were shared. The prayers were for the alcoholic to stop ruining his life and the lives of those around him.
If you have cancer, you are a victim. If you have alcoholism, you are defective.
About six months into my sobriety, after a ten-year battle with alcoholism, my father told me he was very proud of me for quitting drinking. His remarks were sincere and loving. I know that my drinking had caused my parents stress and worry because of the effects it was having on my marriage, and for the potential damage it could have done to my children. To drive his point home – I’m sure in an effort to prevent me from “falling off the wagon” – my dad looked me in the eyes and said sternly, “You have a drinking problem.” Then he took the last sip of his beer and gave me a hug.
You have a drinking problem. That shameful accusation overwhelmed the love I felt from my dad at that moment. I didn’t have a problem. I had a brain-warping, depression-causing, debilitating disease. A deeply imbedded splinter is a problem. An unidentified rash is a problem. Alcoholism is a disease caused by a genetic flaw combined with lifestyle choices, which are the exact same causes for most cancers.
Alcoholism is a disease of shame. The afflicted are considered to have a personal defect – a lack of willpower. For many years, the mere fact that I was addicted to a highly addictive substance filled me with shame. It made me feel like a weak man who lied and deceived to protect the secret of my predilection. I will hide in shame no longer.
Don’t misunderstand my point. I am ashamed of my actions as an active alcoholic. I take accountability for my behavior and have apologized earnestly for my transgressions. However, I have shed the shame of contracting the disease of alcoholism. I had a disease that affects slightly more people than cancer. That is not my fault. Now I feel no shame from my diagnosis.
I have spent my life immersed in an environment that celebrates the glories of alcohol. My father drank everyday of my childhood. My high school friends and I experimented with the same social lubricant we watched our parents enjoy. In college, alcohol became the center of my fraternity universe. After college, I got a job in the steel industry which is known for a heavy drinking culture. In reading the stories of other alcoholics, I have learned that most professions and industries have a heavy drinking culture. Writers and artists drink to unleash their creativity, doctors and lawyers drink to deal with the stress, and the news media and law enforcers drink to create a bond with their sources.
Then our culture vilifies and shames those among us who fall victim to the very substance we spend a lifetime consuming in order to celebrate, lubricate and deal with life.
Substances that cause cancer are called carcinogens. Our society spends billions of dollars to remediate, legislate and educate carcinogens out of our lives.
Then our society spends billions of dollars on advertising and legislative lobbying to convince us our lives are incomplete without the alcoholic’s equivalent of a carcinogen – alcohol.
I hate cancer. It is said that cancer touches everyone, and I am no exception. Two of my grandparents died of cancer, my father has been treated for cancer, I have a former co-worker who was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor when we were in our thirties, and I have countless neighbors and acquaintances who have battled cancer. Nothing would bring me more joy than if our society reaches our universally strived-for goal of the eradication of cancer.
But I would love for us to eradicate alcoholism as well. Treatments exist with varying success rates. What works for one alcoholic is often different from the cure for another. Just like cancers can come out of remission, alcoholics can relapse and have to start the battle all over again.
For all of their similarities – from number of people afflicted to death and destruction left in their wake – there is one major difference between cancer and alcoholism. That difference is found in the attitude of you and me and everyone around us.
Cancer victims are treated with meals and prayers and hugs and offers to help. Alcoholics are sent away to secluded infirmaries or church basements to drink coffee from Styrofoam cups and confess their sins to the other cretins of the underworld. When cancer returns, it is said to come out of remission. When an alcoholic relapses, he is said to have fallen off the wagon.
The barriers to a cure for cancer are money and research and time. The barriers to a cure for alcoholism are attitude and misunderstanding and shame. Removing any of these barriers requires Herculean societal effort. In the case of cancer, our society is unified in our resolve to make such an effort. In the case of alcoholism, our society is too in love with alcohol to remove the barriers to a cure. Thus our society itself is the barrier to a cure for alcoholism.
I hope we keep fighting cancer. I hope we keep caring for the victims among us.
I hope we start to look on alcoholics as victims of a life-ravaging disease. I hope we drag alcoholism out of the shadows and have full-throated conversations about society’s culpability instead of whispers about shame and lack of willpower.
For starters, maybe hug an alcoholic and ask how you can help. It should be easy to find one of us. There are slightly more of us than victims of the disease that touches all of our lives.