Brave? Yes. Unique? No.

If you stop at the first paragraph of this AP article, you might think that Teddy Kennedy is the only person on earth who has ever faced a cancer surgery as daunting as the one he underwent (emphasis mine):

Bravery in the face of cancer? Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has given it new meaning. Few things require as much courage as being wide awake and aware, lying perfectly still for hours, while surgeons methodically slice out bits of your brain.

In fact, although this approach to surgery is not common, Teddy is by no means the only one who has done it:

To avoid cutting through vital areas controlling speech, doctors often return the patient to consciousness and stimulate tissue in the planned surgical path with a probe.

“We’ll have them do language tests like hold up pictures, name objects, repeat words, hold a conversation,” Ewend explained.

After that, the patient is usually put back under while the tumor is cut out, which takes about three to four hours.

However, Kennedy was awake for the removal of the tumor, his doctor’s statement says. That usually means local rather than general anesthesia.

His head would have been in a vise-like device and he’d have to remain very still for hours while the doctors poked, probed and sliced away the cancer, using his responses to guide them.

“That’s the best way you can determine if you’re incurring neurological impairment” as the operation proceeds, said Dr. Kevin McGrail, neurosurgery chief at Georgetown University Medical Center.

“It’s a safe way to do the operation, but it can sometimes be very stressful on the patient,” who is aware of what’s going on even though it is not painful, he said.

As it happens, I am extremely impressed by the fact that Teddy was willing to do this, although I can understand the motive too: the best surgical outcome. Frankly, I don’t know if I could have done that, even sharing his motive. Let me say again, therefore, that I am not writing this to denigrate Teddy’s courage in the face of what seems to be an incredibly uncomfortable and frightening procedure.

My beef — as it almost always is — is with the way in which the media spins things like this (and I’m confident that the spin would have been . . . um, different if Cheney had been the one undergoing surgery). That first paragraph makes it sound as if Kennedy is unique in the history of cancer patients and that no one, absolutely no one, has ever demonstrated this type of courage before. Courageous? Definitely. Unique? Only in AP’s eyes, and that’s true despite the fact that their own article gives the game away.

On the subject of bravery in surgery, I’d like to recommend to you Fanny Burney’s experience. She was a late 18th/early 19th century courtier and writer in England who, in 1811, underwent a radical mastectomy — without anesthetic. Here is her description of that surgery (which is not for the faint of heart):

Yet – when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound – but when again I felt the instrument – describing a curve – cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left – then, indeed, I thought I must have expired.

I attempted no more to open my Eyes, – they felt as if hermetically shut, & so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into the Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered – Again all description would be baffled – yet again all was not over, – Dr Larry rested but his own hand, & – Oh Heaven! – I then felt the Knife tackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture, I heard the Voice of Mr Larry, – (all others guarded a dead silence) in a tone nearly tragic, desire everyone present to pronounce if anything more remained to be done; The general voice was Yes, – but the finger of Mr Dubois – which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing, so indescribably sensitive was the spot – pointed to some further requisition – & again began the scraping! – and, after this, Dr Moreau thought he discerned a peccant attom – and still, & still, M. Dubois demanded attom after atom.

Burney lived another twenty-nine years after that ordeal.