In August, I’ll be traveling to Poland to interview both urban and rural cancer survivors. Specifically, I’ll be examining how the environment in which Poles live and their ages (as in, did or didn’t they live through Communism) influence their responses to a cancer diagnosis and their expectations for treatment.
One of the places I’ll visit is Mielec. The city now has a population of more than 60,000 and is known for its aviation industry. The history of Mielec, though, is bleak.
During WWII, thousands of Jewish citizens in Mielec were enslaved in a factory building German bombers, while others were sent to concentration camps or massacred on the streets. By the conclusion of the war, few living Jews remained in Mielec, and none were left unscarred by the atrocities they witnessed. Today, there are monuments to those who suffered and markers designating mass graves where Jewish bodies were discarded by the Nazis.
As I’ve learned more about the history of this place, I’ve found myself questioning how much one’s history matters when diagnosed with cancer. Survivors whose lives are rooted in struggle surely face cancer from a different perspective than those whose existence pre-cancer is characterized by relative peacefulness.
Certainly, I have seen how Edwina’s lived experience of poverty, abuse and racism has made breast cancer one among many challenges she has endured. For me, the disease represents a dramatic turning point in my life, one of the first situations, at age 29, no less, in which I had no control to make things right.
I am anxious about visiting a place like Mielec, where so much pain and suffering has occurred. At the same time, I want to know more about how these experiences equip cancer survivors for another difficult journey.