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Learning I have prostate cancer


'If I could be the master over disease'
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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Shakespeare has this lovely term he puts into Macbeth's mouth when Macbeth… not Macbeth, Macduff, when Macduff is telling Macbeth… he… remember, he's not… whoever gets Macbeth, kills Macbeth, should not of woman be born or something. And he says, I wasn't, I was untimely ripped, which meant he was born premature, I guess, but I use that word, untimely ripped, differently. People are untimely ripped away from you. And what do you do?

I had never had any idea that my mother might die, strange as it might seem. And one afternoon, I came home from school. It was a cold, dreary December afternoon, a Tuesday. And I was told, you're not going to Hebrew school today, your mother is too sick. My mother died about three hours later. You know, no one had shared anything with me about how sick she was. I knew she was very sick, but I was used to her being sick. I certainly didn't know that her death was close.

So, all these different ways of death, except accidental death, I had become… pretty familiar with. And it's interesting that it wasn't death I was afraid of. It was disease I was afraid of, because I'd known so many sick people. And somehow, something inside my… still-childish mind when I was a senior in high school and I ticked off college of medicine, made me feel that if I could be the master over disease - I told you how quickly I converted myself into wanting to be a doctor - if I could be the master over disease, disease would not be something I needed to fear, the dangers would go away. And it was like a piece of superstition. You know, it was like carrying an amulet of some kind, that I knew wasn't real, and yet something in me continued with this mythical idea that, as long as I'm its master and can conquer it, it won't get me and it won't get any of the people that I love.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Macduff

Duration: 2 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 04 November 2011