Cancer seems to be everywhere in Provence, as in the rest of the developed world. The French, though, seem to have good results in treating cancer and I keep hearing of friends and acquaintances who are cured or in remission.
Last week I was chatting to a guy of 82 who was diagnosed with throat cancer six years ago. He's a bit of a character who was a builder and an ardent socialist. These days he and his wife, who has battled breast cancer, focus on their small vineyard in Bollène, their potager - which supplies fruit, veg and the best salad leaves I've ever tasted - and their chickens and rabbits which supply eggs and meat. (The rabbits had just had their young and I was totally charmed to see half a dozen rabbit-fur nests of tiny baby rabbits lying on their backs, or jumbled in a heap, with their 4 or 5-day old tummies rising and falling gently as they slept. Their ears lay flat against their heads and they looked a picture of bliss.)
François told me about his cancer diagnosis.
"It was the dentist who discovered my cancer" he told me. He elaborated that he hadn't bothered seeing a dentist for many decades: "Moi, je m'en fou des dentistes" he said. In his view, if you eat healthy food, drink good wine and brush your teeth, you can do without seeing a dentist.
However, one day he had a toothache and it didn't go away. His wife forced him to go to town to see the dentist. The dentist told him it wasn't actually a tooth aching and referred him to a cancer specialist. Within days he had started radiotherapy and chemotherapy for cancer of the throat.
The visit to the dentist saved his life.
Breast cancer seems particularly prevalent around here. The woman I bought my house from died of breast cancer a year or two later. My neighbour's wife also died of breast cancer. Both women were young; one in her 40s, one in her 30s. Another friend, Denise, died last year after a two year fight against breast cancer. My neighbour, Sylvie, a dance teacher, has had more luck. She battled breast cancer for years and it returned in 2007 after a period of remission. The diagnosis was terrible and she wrote her will. The news that the cancer had metastased and was widespread in her bones seemed a certain death warrant. And yet the French health system continued chemo and radiotherapy and, against all the odds, she is in remission again and currently strong and healthy.
Another pal who lives in Avignon had colon cancer in her 40s and recently had the all clear after ten years without the cancer returning. Another friend told me recently that his father, 82, had prostate cancer but had drug treatment and now has no trace of cancer cells in his blood. "His results show he's healthier than I am!" his son said. Another friend with prostate cancer, in his early 50S, immediately had the offending prostate surgically removed and has had treatment to prevent the cancer spreading.
The French health system can be a maze for those, like me, who haven't grown up with it. But from what I've seen of French doctors and surgeons at work they're extremely well organised and very highly skilled. Their diagnosis and treatment of cancer is world renowned and although none of us relish the idea that one day we may need their help, I for one have greater confidence in the French health profession than in many others.