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Healthline Connects
Healthline Connects

The Barbarian Invasions & National Cancer Control Month

There are some films worth seeing more than once, and this weekend I had a chance to view the French Canadian beauty, Les Invasions Barbes (2003), or The Barbarian Invasions. From director Denys Arcand, this truly brilliant comedy/drama won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Lanuage Film in 2004. If you are uncomfortable with vulgarity, moral or sexual ambiguity, intellectuals or drug use, read no further. Filmed in French with English subtitles, we get a glimpse into a Canadian healthcare system that's not working too well for a womanizing history professor with cancer, estranged from his family. Shot in yellow light in a crowded hospital, we see patients on gurneys in a hallway amongst the linen carts, hear monitors, telephones, overhead pagers and off camera voices. It looks like dear old dad is in purgatory.

In the film, as in many families, father and son are worlds apart politically, intellectually, financially. The father refers to his son as a "...vicious, ambitious capitalist..." and himself as "...a sensual socialist...". The reality of death has a way of breaking down those barriers. Sebastien, a broker from London, comes back to Montreal and takes Remy, his dad, via ambulance to the US for a PET scan on the advice of a doctor friend in Baltimore. The news in bad, but Remy rejects the idea of going to the US for treatment so Sebastien, corrupting some easily persuaded hospital employees along the way, takes over an unused hospital floor and turns it into a suite for his dad. As adult children, one thing we can do for our parents is to provide a good death. How far would you go for your parent, dying of cancer?

I lost my own father to prostate cancer about a year before I saw this film for the first time. Like Remy and Sebastien, we were worlds apart in many ways, but death and losses over the years had brought us together. I was more the sensual socialist and he, sharing a birthday with W., actually saluted a billboard of Rush Limbaugh as we drove past it in Arizona. He was not an anti-intellectual, however. He spoke several languages and made it a point to learn the languages of the indigenous peoples of Arizona were he spent his last years, like the Tohono O'odham's. We shared a love of travel and Camus' The Stranger , only he could read it in the original French. My only other language is Spanish. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer,the third leading cause of death in men, at the young age of 60. Although slow growing in older (over age 75), prostate cancer is more aggressive in younger men, a fact that eluded my mother, with tragic consequences. My father met with his doctors and made the decision himself to have radiation therapy rather than definitive surgery, because he didn't want to deal with the potential complications of impotence and incontinence. Eight years later, he bewailed the fact that he had the same complications he had tried to avoid and wondered, too late, if he had made the right choice.

My father had a great sense of humor. He used to joke, "Janet, always remember, you're just one sixth of a dysfunctional family." The dysfunction came to a head with my dad's diagnosis. The mother in most families is the locus of emotional support. When a mother is in denial about her spouse's illness and instructs her kids not to talk to dad about his cancer because it upsets him, the hounds of hell of resentment and misunderstanding are unleashed. Like Episode 3, Season 1 of the Sopranos Denial, Anger, Acceptance, where Jackie Aprile is in the hospital with cancer, the denial is so thick you need a meat cleaver from Striale's Pork Store to cut it. There is a bad seed in every family and I rebelled against my mother's code of silence, had the effrontery to take my dad on a vacation to Portugal three months before his demise. The fates conspired and I had enough frequent flyer miles to get him a first class ticket through Paris, where he had an unscheduled layover in a five star hotel at the airlines expense. We had a good time.

In the Barbarian Invasions, when everyone realizes the end is near, Sebastian borrows a friend's cabin on Lake Champlain and transports his dad there along with a group of friends. Sebastian got his father's pain under control through the help of a heroin addict and a nurse. When the end was near for my dad, my sisters broke free of the spell my mother had cast over them and spent some beautiful time saying their goodbyes with my dad in the hospital, and at home. My mother fought us on that, too. She didn't want the hospital bed in the sun-filled family room, all of us crowded around my father and his catheter bag and the undeniable pain of cancer that had metastasized to the liver. In the US for pain control, we have hospice care. The hospice nurse came out and delivered the oxycontin liquid which I gave to him sublingually (under the tongue). She told me to keep giving it to him until his pain subsided. It didn't take long. His breathing subsided too, and he was gone.

Thank you, jknorri, for use of your lovely photo of Lake Champlain, Thankg06. Nice pickup.
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