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Cancer specialist shares her LOTR experiences

Fran Boyle

Many people may not see a link between cancer treatment and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but leading medical oncologist Professor Fran Boyle AM believes that Tolkiens’ fiction provides a rich metaphor for the team approach needed to treat cancer effectively.

Professor Boyle explained her views when she spoke to Warrane residents about her work on 23 October, 2013.

Professor Boyle, who is Director of the Patricia Ritchie Centre for Cancer Care and Research at Mater Hospital, North Sydney, and former Professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Sydney, emphasised that it takes about 15 people to treat cancer and the way that treating doctors and nurses interact with one another and the patient is critical to treatment outcomes.

She said some cancer patients feel like a football in a scrum, but a better metaphor of the relationship between those treating cancer and the patient could be seen in the third Lord of the Rings movie – The Return of the King. In it the relationship between two of the central characters, Frodo Baggins and “Sam” (Samwise Gamgee), was decisive.

Professor Boyle said one patient had told her that she was like Frodo because, she said: “I am going to win – I’m going to get rid of that cancer”. She intended to go up Mount Doom and win and the reason she was going to succeed was that she had Sam.

“The reason why Frodo made it up Mount Doom and back is that someone went with him,” Professor Boyle said. “Sam of course, for those who don’t intimately know the movie, was his gardener and he was assigned the task of accompanying Frodo. He was told ‘you go with him and don’t you leave him’ and that turned out to be a very, very difficult task, as it often is for people who are close to someone who is seriously ill.

“There are times when their behaviour deteriorates, there are times when they want to hang out with the new buddy that they met (during treatment) who understands everything about what they are going through and they don’t want their friends and family – who they see as not being able to understand – close to them.

“There are moments when people get rejected in the cancer journey, just because they are too close.

“And I thought that that gave us a different model for thinking about what really helps you when you have a serious illness and what sorts of communication as team members we needed to be thinking about.

“Frodo really wouldn’t have got very far without Sam – he was the person who did the carrying. And remember when he says: ‘I can’t carry it, but I can carry you’.”

Professor Boyle said this is what it is like looking after someone with cancer.

“You can’t take it from them, and you can’t do it for them, all you can do is to carry them,” she said.

“Sometimes it is like carrying a ball, but it has got a different kind of nuance to it, because Frodo of course has lots of choices. Frodo has free will, he has the ability to make his own decisions in the circumstances, in the way that a ball does not.”

For Sam’s part, Professor Boyle said, he did all the things that you need to do for someone who is sick.

“You have to nag them. You have to drag them. You have to take them to treatment even when they don’t want to go… You have to make them do the things they don’t feel like doing and that they are not up to.

“People with cancer, who are facing that journey and those decisions, who don’t have someone as an intimate carer in their lives, actually stop. They stop having the chemo, they stop going to the radiotherapy that is going to help them, because it is actually hard yards.

“They don’t sleep and there isn’t someone saying to them: ‘Go to sleep – you need sleep’…”

Professor Boyle said one of the important things that Sam does for Frodo is that he listens.

“He tries to cheer him up, but he also lets him bellyache. That is another great gift you can give to someone with a serious illness – just listen to them.”

Professor Boyle outlined a number of ways in which cancer teams were trained to listen and spoke of other ways in which people with serious illnesses can be helped, like celebrating milestones with them and sharing their grief.

She said that in the final analysis it was difficult to know who had played the decisive role in curing a cancer patient and concluded with a quote from another Lord of the Rings character, Gandalf:

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]