My family lived in Southern California in the mid-1950s, and I vividly remember my inaugural visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom in 1956, in celebration of my 10th birthday. To my young eyes, it was all amazingly cool: the jungle ride, the Mark Twain steamboat, the teacups in Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland’s ride to the moon. But despite all the fun and excitement, this pre-Matterhorn version of Disneyland lacked the one ride I really wanted to experience: a roller coaster.
The Matterhorn was great, but when Space Mountain opened to the public in the mid-1970s, my roller coaster dream was truly fulfilled. To me, it was the perfect thrill: a high-speed rollercoaster housed inside an enormous windowless room.
Space Mountain, with its sudden drops and sharp turns, was more exciting than an ordinary roller coaster, since the complete darkness kept the rider from anticipating what would come next. This total uncertainty made the ride all the more thrilling.
So, what has Space Mountain got to do with cancer?
A roller coaster in a dark room is an apt metaphor for the journey through cancer diagnosis and treatment, a scary and unpredictable course of events that I have come to call the Oncology Adventure Ride. As with Space Mountain on a busy summer day, you–the cancer patient–must first be prepared to wait anxiously for a long time before the ride even begins.
Just as on a roller coaster, it is the system’s managers—not you—that determine the speed of progress from diagnosis through additional testing to actual treatment. And once you board the ride, you control little more than how nervously you shift in your seat. The Oncology Adventure Ride moves on tracks—a predetermined course, often called a “treatment protocol”—and it is basically impossible to get off until the very end.
As with Space Mountain, you’re in the dark, and there are always surprises in store. A gradual climb to the top of the ride may deceive you into thinking that you can predict exactly what will happen next. But all of the sudden, there is a dramatic downhill acceleration, followed by a sharp 90-degree turn, and you are heading off in an unexpected direction.
Slow ascents alternate with hair-raising descents. Finally, at the end of the ride, you exit, disoriented and feeling somewhat worse for the wear. Something about you is different, but you are not quite sure yet what it is.
Question: if you’ve been through cancer treatment—it doesn’t have to be for prostate cancer—what other metaphors come to mind that describe what you have experienced? How have you been changed by the Oncology Adventure Ride?