Boomers in Cancerland

We’ve been enormously influential. Born between 1946 and 1964, we baby boomers are the generation that has pretty much driven the major changes in American culture since we began arriving on the scene just after World War II.  There are about 79 million of us.

Coming of age in the 1960’s, we impacted popular music, popular media, and long-established attitudes toward authority: so much so that “Baby Boomers” were designated Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1967.

Not only were we the draftees that found ourselves in Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but we were also the primary engine of the protests that effectively drove President Lyndon Johnson from office.  Boomers led the rise of environmental awareness, and we were confident in our generation’s ability to change the world—ostensibly for the better.  In the 1980’s and early 1990’s we visionaries of the 1960’s morphed into full-fledged consuming adults and began forming families.  1992 saw the inauguration of the first boomer president, Bill Clinton, as our generation took firm hold of the levers of power.

“Aging Boomer:” An Oxymoron?
But now as we boomers move into our seventh decade the issue becomes less how we will turn culture on its head, and more about how we as individuals will deal with aging, disease and death.

Above all, we will continue to celebrate our eternal youth.  Bob Dylan’s song, “Forever Young” will always be our anthem.  And we are the cohort that has forced the American Association of Retired Persons to become an acronym, AARP, since we see the very word “retired” as anathema, applicable only to our parents’ “greatest” generation.

So how are we boomers, who by dint of our sheer size have always been able to bend American culture to our collective will, going to deal with the inevitability of aging, and with it, disease and physical decline?  Our efforts to stave off aging and focus on health are legendary.  We have long placed a premium on health and fitness: from the jogging/running craze of the 1980’s to the 24-hour gyms common today, to say nothing of our role as active participants in the $35 billion per year weight loss industry.

Of course, many aging boomers in good health will simply remain in denial about the utimate consequence of growing old until at some point we’re forced to acknowledge that we cannot control our destiny.

Boomers in Cancerland
And nowhere is this lack of control more evident than when someone hears, as I did, the Three Scary Words, “You have cancer.”

Will we acknowledge our disease and our mortality? Or some of us simply party on, deciding “for tomorrow we may die of cancer, but let’s continue to have a good time in the meantime?” Or will we boomers react in some novel fashion that preceding generations have not?

One thing is sure: numerically there will be increasing numbers of cancer diagnoses among us.  Our  numbers guarantee that.  By 2030 (the year the last boomers born in 1964 start turning 66, the median age of cancer diagnoses in the US), it’s estimated that 2.3 million people in the US will be living with a cancer diagnosis, up from 1.6 million in 2010.  70 percent of those cancers will be among the elderly, i.e., aging boomers.

Our boomer legacy is that as a generation we pushed back on prevailing assumptions and cultural mores and changed the status quo.  Will we push back on cancer with the same force?