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I have just returned from the Eighth World Congress of
Psycho-oncology, which was held in Venice on October 18–21, 2006,
and attracted the largest number of attendees ever to participate in the
annual scientific meeting of the International Psycho-Oncology Society
(IPOS). There were close to 1500 participants from 58 countries. Professor
Luigi Grassi of the University of Ferrara, the current President of IPOS,
was the organizing chair of the Congress, and he and his local scientific
committee did a magnificent job of hosting a most diverse and
multidisciplinary meeting. A Pre-Congress Psychosocial Academy, consisting
of two days of intensive workshops led by outstanding international
faculty, was held in beautiful Ferrara, just prior to the start of the
Congress in Venice. As the incoming vice president of IPOS, a member of
the Psychosocial Academy held in Ferrara, and an active scientific
participant in the Eighth World Congress in Venice, it is fair to say that
I was pretty busy. In fact, because of all of my activities related to
this conference and IPOS, I was away from home and work for nine full
days, the longest time I've ever been away from my family. This
commitment of an unusually inordinate amount of time to a scientific
conference activity made me sit down and evaluate whether the commitment
of that much time was really worth it. I was aware, the entire time I
attended the conference-related activities, that I needed to come away
with at least one important lesson, idea, thought, or inspiration;
otherwise I would have felt that I had not spent the time wisely. In other
words, I needed the answer to the questions “What brought me to
Venice, and where was I going beyond Venice?” Existential questions?
We are born. We live. We die. In between birth and death is a life
that is filled with joy and sadness, laughter and tears, tragedy and
triumph, suffering and healing. This life can be long or short in
duration. The events in our lives can be given meaning or appear to be
absent of meaning. The events in our lives can be given value and judged
as “good” or “bad,” “just” or
“unjust,” or they can be interpreted as random valueless
events. One's perspective on these aspects and events of human
existence are often shaped by our religious beliefs (or lack of them), our
experiences, and our instincts. Ultimately, however, the task of every
human being is to find the means by which one can live a mortal life that
is inevitably characterized by finiteness and the existential truths that
have been described above. Simply put, the challenge of life is to learn
how to balance hope and despair, to learn how to live with the
inevitability of death and suffering.
At a recent scientific conference in New York City, a student asked
one of the scientists participating in a panel discussion on science and
religion a provocative question. “Can you be a good scientist and
also believe in God?” The scientist, a Nobel laureate, quickly
responded: “Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is
not only incompatible with good science, this kind of belief is damaging
to the well-being of the human race!” But disdain for religion is
far from universal among scientists. Francis Collins, who directs the U.S.
National Genome Research Institute and was head of the first team to map
the entire human genome, is an example of a highly visible and respected
scientist who also openly embraces a religious Christian faith. As
palliative care clinicians and researchers, we, as well as our patients,
are constantly confronted with this very dilemma: the age-old tension
between faith and reason, God and science.
Growing up on New York City's Lower East Side of the
1950s there were no other Breitbarts to be found, so it was not
surprising that I would be drawn to the heroic legend of my famous
ancestor and namesake, Siegmund (Zishe) Breitbart. My parents were
survivors of the Holocaust, born in Turka, a small shtetl in Galicia,
Poland, not far from the Lodz birthplace of the “greatest Jewish
strongman—the modern Samson.” Being related to the famous
Jewish “Iron King” was, for me, a proud link to a legacy of
strength, courage, and defiance in an environment scarred by the
profound losses and overwhelming grief of my generation of
“children of survivors.” In 1994, I attended the
International AIDS Congress in Berlin, and was the first Breitbart, to
my knowledge, to visit Zishe's grave site in a small Jewish
cemetery in the former East Berlin. Zishe Breitbart was a looming
figure of strength in my subconscious.
Waiting…. We've all done it. We have all had that
universal experience of waiting. Waiting for news; waiting in line;
waiting in traffic. Waiting can be distressing, exciting, or a neutral
experience. It all depends on the context. Waiting in line at the store is
a rather neutral experience, especially if the line is short and you are
not running late for something important. Waiting to see your child come
off of the bus after a 3-day school trip can be exciting and full of
joyous expectation. Waiting for the results of a biopsy, taken from your
child's liver to determine if he has a life-threatening illness, is
an experience filled with pain and fear. This last context of waiting is
the subject of this brief essay.
I have been living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for 20 years. For 20
years I have gone to sleep with MS, awakened with MS, worked with MS, fell
in love with MS, got married with MS, went through five miscarriages with
MS, gave birth to a beautiful son with MS, raised a son whose life would
be marked by the MS of a parent, and most importantly, I will go on living
with MS for as long as fate allows. My wife Rachel has MS.