• Tag Archives cancer
  • Cancer and Metaphor

    Beltane                                                                  Early Growth Moon

    An odd twist in emphasis in the usually technological triumphalist (which I enjoy, even if I don’t always agree with it) Wired Magazine: a sensible article on cancer, one that illustrates modesty in the face of evolution and the dangers of metaphor.

    Cellular multiplication and cellular death occur over and over again in the human body from the moment of birth onward. (before birth, too? don’t know)  As cells multiply, necessary to keep replacing the cells that die, mutations creep in.  Cells have elaborate defenses against mutations that bloom into their own activity program–cancer and these work well, as the Wired article points out, most of the time.

    But, two factors work against the body’s defenses:  the first is the sheer number of mutations that occur in a lifetime, live long enough and one or two will sneak past the cells defenses, the second I snuck in the last part of that phrase, time.  The longer we live, that is, the more successful we are pushing back disease, certain cancers, too, the more time we have to acquire new mutations that a weakened cellular defense system cannot handle.

    Here’s where the Wired article goes radical.  Cancer, it says, is not a bad actor, it is, simply, the bodies on agents acting without proper restraint.  And, given the two factors mentioned in the above paragraph, it must be seen as a normal part of the aging process.  Cancer, then, is not an enemy, but friendly fire.

    This matters.  And here we get into the power of language and metaphor.  Remember Nixon’s War on Cancer?  Well, guess what?  Cancer won.  Yes, we’ve developed many treatments that fend off this cancerous assault or another, but in this understanding, all we’ve done is delayed, not defeated cancer.

    When we go to war against our body, we end up with the dire consequences of chemotherapy.  All along here, I’ve been thinking about Regina Schmidt, Bill Schmidt’s wife, who died of complication relating to cancer treatment.  She refused to see the cancer as an enemy that she needed to fight.  She did engage in a battle with her cancer.

    Yes, she used the tools available to slow it down, stave it off, but when the tools began to overwhelm her as well, she decided to not use them anymore.  This is not the kind of decision you make in a war; it’s the kind of decision you make in a life.

    And that’s exactly where the war metaphor gets us in trouble with cancer.  We feel like if we don’t battle valiantly with all the weapons deployed, never mind the battlefield, we’ve admitted defeat.

    No.  We admit to being human.  To having a body that cannot defend us forever.  To having cells that mostly, in fact, almost perfectly, recreate us every seven years or so with no major problems, but which eventually face odds they cannot overcome.  That’s not war; it’s time and fate.

    We know the dangers of metaphor, those of us have lived through the reaction to 9/11.  Bush invoked the war metaphor and trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and a wasted international reputation later, we’re still fighting.  How much more sensible if we recognized terrorism as a mutation of the body human, not compatible with life, but not something we need to go to war against either; treating it rather as a cell treats a rogue cell, with localized defenses, something more resembling law enforcement than military engagement.

    Words matter; lives matter.  Let’s not waste either one.

  • Auntie Biotic

    Spring                                                       Beltane Moon

    Kate is home and her arm (cellulitis) looks much better.  Still a ways to go both on the antibiotics and healing, but the right direction.  Among the vagaries of strong antibiotic treatment is its kill all nature.  Like Round-up can’t tell the difference between weed and grass, most antibiotics can’t tell the difference between the pathogens and the friendly flora and fauna of your gut.

    As a large symbiotic organism with literally billions of helper one-celled creatures throughout our body, it’s not a good idea to kill the guest-workers.  It would be sort of like throwing all the immigrants in jail (or deporting them) that you need to do the work in agriculture, manufacturing and domestic services.  Oh, wait…

    How does the old song go?  You don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone.  The digestive tract needs these wee beasties, needs them bad.  When they get killed off in sufficient quantities, the intestinal tract can get thrown way outta whack.

    Now, I’m not sayin’ the cure is worse than the disease, but at certain points in time it can feel like a toss up.  This very problem can cause cancer patients to push away chemo-therapy, concluding that in this case, in spite of a terrible disease, that the cure is worse.

    A lot of medicine relies on harsh chemicals, the internal equivalents of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.  It’s popular in some circles to acknowledge this and give a blanket condemnation of Western medicine.  This kind of criticism only makes sense in a world where dying from an infection triggered during gardening seems impossible.  Why impossible?  Because we have the harsh chemicals to combat the even harsher outcomes of untended infection.

    Overuse has begun to erode our edge against infections, so we might again have an era when the yearning will be for the time when we could beat stuff back.

  • Suffering and Loss

    Samain                              Moon of the Winter Solstice

    My cousin Leisa, second youngest of all the Keaton cousins (mom’s side of our family), has had an aneurysm found, repaired and then slipped into a coma as a result of a stroke.  Part of her skull has been removed to reduce pressure on the brain from swelling and a second aneurysm has been found, too small to repair right now.

    This is eerily reminiscent of Mom’s stroke back in 1964.  Mom was 46, though, younger than Leisa who is in her late 50’s.  Here’s the link:  Mom had two congenital aneurysms, one just below each temple.  In 1964 stroke care and aneurysm repair had no where near the sophistication, armamentarium and clinical experience available today, 47 years later.

    Mom might have survived her stroke, might even have had her aneurysms discovered before one burst, with 2011 treatment.  Leisa’s fortunate in that regard, though no one ever wants to test the standard of care.

    Even sadder and more distressing my friend Jane’s daughter, Em, 42, died this week of lung cancer.  Never a smoker, a runner, a healthy lifestyle in place she never really had a chance.  She received a diagnosis of stage 4, meaning metastatic, in 2008.  She rallied and did well for a time, but the disease had become too well established and finally overwhelmed her.

    Death and suffering are common notes in the symphony of each of our lives, bass notes, struck down in the resonant lower registers of our souls.  No matter how common, how usual or how expected both reverberate, clang around in our depths.

    Reading Em’s Caringbridge entries brought me to tears, the anguish of a younger mother’s death; one I know, know too well.  Loss can throw us down a dark well; it did me, one it took several years and a lot of help to crawl up from.

    The hope we all can share and that those who will grieve us can, too, is the multiple ways in which our lives continue to ripple out through our children, our family, our extended family and friends, through our work and our works.  As far as I can tell, this legacy is our immortality.

  • Bee Diary: April 18, 2001

    Spring                                       Full Bee Hiving Moon

    My bee pick up date and time has come.  I get my gals around 2:30 pm on Saturday.  I’m mostly ready, having prepared the hive boxes and the frames on Sunday.  I need a couple of entrance reducers and a bottom board, but that’s no big deal.  I have frozen pollen patties so I’m good there and the honey frames I’ve got in the hive boxes will feed my bees to begin, 06-27-10_beekeeperastronautmaybe enough to get them through to the dandelions.

    This is a new season and I’m hopeful that my increasing experience will make it a successful one.  We plan to sell some honey this year, at least enough to cover package bee costs and equipment, perhaps turn a little profit.  That entails finding a bee-proof spot to do the extracting; I’m hoping the garage will work.

    Went to see my dermatologist.  No skin cancer.  First time I’ve been checked, but, hey, this skin ain’t gettin’ more pliable.  He says once a year from now on.  Now on until.  Now on until death, I suppose.

    Another busy day with Leslie at 11:30, dermatologist and Woollies tonight.  Heading out.

  • Gospel

    Winter                                                          Waning Moon of the Cold Month    3 degrees

    In all the hoopla and aftermath of the party I forgot to mention the gospel.  The good news.  The friend’s wife I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, the one diagnosed with cancer?  She came to the party.  Not only that she said her energy was better than it had been for a while.  She looked good, too.  Both she and her husband looked still vulnerable, the residue of concern, fear lingering.  She has a hormone treatment, recommended by her oncologist, that may keep the cancer at bay.  Not cure it, but keep it from getting a firm grasp on her.

    As Leni said, another party goer that same night, about his throat cancer, “Well, you know, the goal now is to make cancer a chronic disease.  Something you can manage.”  He’s living proof, having survived in apparent good health for several years now.  He and the friend’s wife were not alone, either.  Hank, another party goer, has leukemia, a disease kept in check now for many years, so much so that it almost recedes into the background.

    These are the three I know about.  There were probably others.  Cancer no longer has the skull and cross-bones attached to its every appearance.  Think of it.  Cancer is not a new disease.  It killed people relentlessly in all centuries before the last one.  Now, it begins to look, at least in many cases, like the caged tiger, pacing back and forth within its chemical compound, its lethality imprisoned, though not rendered harmless.

    Kate has retired from the practice of medicine as others graduate each year to take up the responsibility, this tricky act we call healing.  It has more parts than chemistry and technology and knives, we know this, yet those parts themselves, the fruits of engineering and science, have a great deal to offer.  Perhaps this next century is the one where the enlightenment driven side of medicine will meet the ageless truths of the human spirit, joining together in a medicine, a healing for the whole person.   It may be that the last years of the baby boom generation, now upon us, will provide the impetus for this fusion.

  • The Cold Month

    Winter                                                                       Waxing Moon of the Cold Month

    Sunlight has begun to grow, but as is often the case here in January, the snow keeps the air near the ground cold and the amount of light increase will not begin to warm us until February, though by then the train will have left the station for winter.   It’s days then will, again, be numbered by rising temperatures, melting ice and corners in the city where cars on intersecting streets can be seen again.  But not now, not January.  This is the Cold Month.

    Kate’s next to last day at full time work.  Her friends at work will take her out to Applebee’s tomorrow night after the shift ends at the Urgent Care.  Afterward she will come home and we’ll sit together a bit, listening to music or watching a recorded TV program, the last time we’ll play out this late night ritual save for the occasional, 4 0r 5, nights she’ll work a month for the next couple of years.

    Vega and Rigel will go to Armstrong kennels for the first time since they came to live here.  They’re pretty flexible dogs so I’m sure they’ll have a good time.  All of our dogs have liked it there.  Emma, our eldest whippet who died last year, loved the kennel, eagerly whining and straining to get inside.

    My friend’s wife has chosen a hormonal treatment for her adenocarcinoma.  They’ll go with that and see what results they get, if the tumors shrink.  Again, if you have a quiet moment and can remember her and her family, they would appreciate it.

  • Pain

    Winter                                                                 Waning Moon of the Winter Solstice

    When a friend is in pain, the pain travels.  In its journey from one friend to another, the pain may not lessen, but its burden may grow lighter.  Such a journey is underway now with a friend whose wife has received distressing news, the kind of news we know about yet still hope will never be heard among the people we know and love.  Cancer.  It has such a brutal, dangerous, threatening aura.  Black.  Shot through with jagged points.  Hearing the word in the mouth of a friend sets the inner self back.  Creates a sense of fear and loss, loss even before any loss, a type of loss that may be the final stage of innocence, the end game of our immortality.

    Then there is turning to face the truth, to talk to the doctors, to sort out the words, the feelings, the possibilities, the dangers.  And choosing, choosing about matters of life and death. Decisions no amount of prayer or meditation or forethought prepare us for, decisions about our own life, its length, its end.  Or, worse, the life of a loved one.  Hope?  Of course, hope always has a role, a horse in the race.  But there are other horses, too.

    My heart has been heavy ever since I learned this news, an existential dread, the kind always there, under the surface, the knowing, the knowing about predatory nature.  Yes, she is our mother; yes, in all ways, yes; but, like Coatlicue of whom I wrote a few days ago, she not only gives life, but she takes it back.

    Cancer is not evil.  It has no intention.  It is.  It is a force majeur, an act of blind fate.  And yet.  We can, sometimes, turn it back.  Cancer’s aura has gotten a bit dimmer of late, a degree of lethal certainty has leaked away as drugs and drug regimens, research and surgery have chipped away at its powers.

    So, I invite you to do the kind of thing in which you believe for my friend’s wife.  A kind and generous universe will know how to direct your message.  We all need love, love from places we know and places we don’t.

  • Living and Dying

    Spring                                                    Full Flower Moon

    Death comes calling whenever it wants,  not worrying about the season or the weather or the inclinations of the living.  Kate’s colleague, Dick, suffering from multiple myeloma has gone on hospice care after two years of often brutal treatment regimens.  Bill Schmidt’s brother, who has prostate cancer, also chose hospice care recently to ease the pain of complications.

    Tonight I was on my first Political Committee call of the year, a Sierra Club committee that deals in endorsements and retail politics.  The dogs were making noise so I quick ran upstairs to shoo them inside.  Emma didn’t come inside.  She lay under the cedar tree.  I’ve watched a lot of dogs die over the last 20 years and when I went to her side, she looked up at me, but had the stare that looks beyond, out a thousand yards, or is it infinity?  Her body was cold and she did not rise.

    Vega, the big puppy, came outside and poked at Emma with her paw, sat down and nuzzled her.  Vega loves Emma, has since she was a little puppy.  I called Kate to let her know I thought Emma was dying.  Emma’s fourteen, our oldest dog right now, and our oldest dog ever with the possible exception of Iris.  At fourteen her time is near, perhaps it will come yet tonight.  Right now she’s on the couch, wrapped in a blue blanket, her head on her favorite pillow.

    She seems a bit more alert now and Kate says her heartbeat is regular.  She may have had an arrhythmia and converted it, that is, brought herself back into normal rhythm.  Hard to say.  As Kate said, she appears to have the dwindles.

    When I compared the call, about politics, and Emma lying outside, I realized Emma was more important to me than the call, so I stayed with her awhile, brought her inside and made her comfortable on the couch.  Then I returned to the call.

  • A Locked Car Mystery

    Imbolc    Waning Wild Moon

    The Woolly’s met tonight at the Jasmine across from the Black Forest.  Food is noveau Vietnamese, French accents.  I had spring rolls and mangoes on sticky rice.  Just right.

    Got to give everyone a head’s up on labyrinthitis.  Tom has a friend who visited him yesterday and may be dead from multiple myeloma in two months.  Whoa.  Paul and Sarah have purged their home, shined up and have neared the day of the first open house.  Changes.

    Stefan locked the keys in his car while x-skiing at Hyland Park.  He asked a cop if he could help.  The cop said sure and gave Stefan a ride down.  When he got out to work on Stefan’s car, he inadvertently locked his keys inside as well as Stefan who was in the back seat.  In a police car.  A locksmith had to be called for both cars.

    The trip in is always worth it, a chance to connect and renew the connection.  Got several happy birthdays.  Guys just don’t remember birthdays well.