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"We’ll Fight This One Together"

Esther Teichtal

When Professor Mark Glaser chose oncology as his medical field, it wasn’t a statement about death, but about life and the lengths he’s willing to go to preserve it. But not all his patients chose life at all costs. His most famous, a British parliamentarian, preferred to die in her glory —and it was up to him to keep it a secret.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mark Glaser was a young, aspiring medical student in the ’60s whose mind was set.

“I want to be an oncologist. Radiation therapy and cancer care,” he told his mother, excitedly.

She paled. “Yenne zach?”

Then, as today, cancer was the disease everyone feared most; she wouldn’t even mention it by name.

Sitting opposite Professor Glaser today, I, too, am intrigued by the doctor’s choice of oncology. With so many routes open to medical students, why cancer?

“I think it was something in my personality,” says 68-year-old Professor Glaser, chief of cancer services at theLondonImperialCollegeHospital, who weighs his words carefully. “I’ve always lived with this paradox: on one hand, I believe everything is from Hashem, yet at the same time I believe enemies have to be fought, and this paralyzing fear of cancer is something I have always wanted to vanquish.”

Professor Glaser sees himself as an army general, each disease another battlefront to overcome. He urges his patients — shocked, startled, despondent, and often hopeless after their diagnosis — to forget statistics. This, he tells them, is one battle they’re going to fight together.

But in this business, not everyone has the same idea of what the fight is about. Is it about prolonging life at all costs, even if that may mean compromising on its quality? Or would less-invasive palliative care present, perhaps, a more inviting approach to a fiercely independent individual who values functionality above all — even at the risk of cutting life short?

Dr. Glaser’s highest-profile case was actually the latter, as he found himself roped into British political intrigue, all the while being sworn to secrecy.

This Orthodox Jewish doctor’s most famous patient, Mo Mowlam, was a feisty parliamentarian who deliberately chose a course of treatment that would enable her to continue to function as a high-profile cabinet minister — but would eventually kill her. Mowlam, who passed away in 2005, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor by Professor Glaser in January 1997, just three months before Labor’s landslide victory and her appointment as secretary of state forNorthern Ireland. Dr. Glaser advised surgical removal of the tumor, which according to medical experts would have given her functional survival for many years. But in her position brain surgery was not an option; instead, she opted only for radical radiotherapy, took steroids to cope with the side effects, and made sure no one would find out the truth about the time-bomb ticking inside her head.

Mowlam knew that divulging the true state of her health would put an end to her career. Her agenda was to broker a peace agreement with the Irish Republican Army, which she brazenly managed to accomplish the following year. Had Prime Minister Tony Blair known the true state of her health — a malignant brain tumor usually affects judgment — he would have pulled her away from the negotiating table forever.

Sixteen years later, Professor Glaser can talk freely about that harrowing time, when he pleaded with Mowlam to divulge the truth to Blair instead of covering it up as a harmless, benign growth. Yet doctor-patient confidentiality compelled Dr. Glaser to remain silent and watch from the sidelines as she secured a cabinet position and engaged in one of the most sensitive peace processes in history. Despite her illness — or, some say, because of it — Mowlam was successful in bringing about an IRA ceasefire, overseeing the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

 

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