My wife snuck into her father’s ward on the palliative care unit where he was being treated for cancer in the summer of 2006. Visiting hours were coming to an end. Most family members and friends had left for the day so the area was quiet. My wife sat next to her father, and they talked quietly. “I don’t want to die,” he said. “It’s so nice sitting here with you, chatting.”
But soon after, he did die. It broke my wife’s heart. She still sheds tears for a father who she always called when she needed advice, who made it through his father-of-the-bride speech when he had only months to live.
I thought of my father-in-law, and his restless yearning to stay alive, as the staff of Newsweek put together our annual issue on the fight against cancer. This year, we’ve focused on the people we are calling Cancer Rebels—the women, men and even children who scorn the conventions, and who refuse to succumb to the disease. One rebel is a scientist who defies the prevailing scientific understanding of the disease and its treatment; another is a patient dedicated to helping other patients access groundbreaking clinical trials that, though risky, might prolong their lives. Others refuse to give in to the devastation cancer treatment has wrought on their sex lives, reclaiming primal joy and declining to stay silent about what has too often been a taboo subject. Some say to hell with the law and medical orthodoxy and give their sick toddlers medical marijuana.
“Oncologists like me have failed,” one prominent specialist tells Newsweek. “We haven’t really made that much of an impact against this horrible disease.” That might be too harsh—doctors and researchers have made enormous strides—but for many people living with the disease or working to defeat it, the chasm between where we are and where we want to be demands that we try new approaches and reject the status quo. I can’t think of anything good to say about cancer. But what follows are some wonderful stories about the people who rebel against it.