When I was a young medical student, I found a lump in my left testicle. When I had it examined, my doctor confirmed the worst. I had Stage 2 testicular cancer with a 70 percent chance of metastasis.
As if that news weren’t bad enough, I then learned the treatment plan my doctors had devised for me. They offered only one option, which was to have all the lymph nodes in my gut removed, along with the affected testicle. This was to be followed by extensive rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, accompanied by recurring prescriptions for anxiety and depression. It would be unlikely that I would ever conceive children naturally. The plan was so extreme, so invasive, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the best one for me.
After much anxious consideration, I decided to go through with some of the suggested treatment, opting to have only my left testicle removed.
I have obviously lived to tell the tale and today have two children who were conceived naturally. The experience put me on a new path, one that taught me about myself, led me to confront past trauma, and helped me discover the kind of doctor I wanted to be.
Looking back, I am thankful to Bernie Sanders, who played a critical role in this development.
The pivotal moment came during a psychiatry lecture in my second year of medical school, when I got up in front of the class to talk about what I was going through. There I was, studying to become a physician while experiencing what it was like to be a patient with a critical condition.
As my professor listened to my story, something about it struck a chord with him. After class, he approached me and recommended an article that he believed related to my case. It was Cancer, Disease, and Society, by Bernard Sanders. At the time the name was unfamiliar to me. Today, of course, we all know him as Bernie, leading Democratic candidate for President of the United States.
That 1969 article, published in the Vermont Freeman, may have been several decades old at the time I found it, but it offered a perspective on disease that was new to me. It led me to look beyond a person’s physical symptoms and the various tests, medicines, and treatments that Western medicine had to offer. It inspired me to wonder what else in a person’s life might be contributing to their condition.
As Sanders asks at the beginning of the article, “Can disease be understood solely by looking into test tubes and microscopic slides, while ignoring the emotional lives of the people who succumb to them? Is disease just a tumor, an ulcer, or a headache, or are those merely symptoms and manifestations of a person’s whole state of being?”
This resonated with me.
What if I could heal myself and help heal others without all of the surgeries, side-effect-inducing prescriptions, and draining chemotherapy? Must symptoms be treated in isolation, or can we approach illnesses by considering a person’s whole state of being?
These questions inspired me to explore the sources Sanders cited. Later I found the work of the doctor who would become my teacher, Dr. Morton Herskowitz, author of Emotional Armoring.
Their writing helped me understand that there is no true separation between mind and body. True healing requires considering a person’s emotional wellbeing, past experiences and traumas, as well as their physical symptoms.
I see a parallel to this in the fractured, diseased state of our politics today.
Our society is as divided against itself as perhaps it has ever been. We are not listening to one another. We are not seeing one another. In fact, we are treating our body politic as a collection of various symptoms, rather than what it is: a whole body which has been shaped by its history, its traumas, and by the experiences of every individual citizen.
Perhaps, just like Sanders became a lifeline for me during my darkest time, he could become a lifeline for American society in this moment of dire need. If voters give him an opportunity to become the Democratic candidate this year, I believe he can lead us all to the birth of a new awareness. To a new unity in which all of us, regardless of party, come together in decency, truth, and reconciliation.
We must stop seeing our country as nothing more than a collection of disparate elements, single symptoms that we can silence, for a time, with a Band-Aid. We need a new, integrative approach to healing society—the kind that Sanders advocated 50 years ago. I believe he is the one who can bring this approach to all of us today.