Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Emperor of all Maladies

After those delightful oncology lectures, I haven’t had a glass of wine in 2 weeks. I’ve thrown out all of my potentially cancer causing deodorants, shampoos, body washes—basically all products that help me look human. And this weekend I attempted to make milk from legumes—it was gross and made a sticky mess all over the kitchen. I’m pretty sure none of these things are really helping to lower my cancer risk, but they sure help me feel like I’m taking action against a disease so diverse in symptom and yet so uniform in suffering.

Some of you may have been privy to my minor freak out during lecture, when I learned I have basically all of the risk factors for cancer that were discussed.

1.     Being from Marin: Yea- I’m from there…but if you ask me, I’ll probably say I grew up north of San Francisco. Apparently we also drink a lot there…come visit Paige and I sometime.
2.     Being of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage: Haven’t the Jews been through enough? I mean really. I swear this comes up as a risk factor in just about every lecture. Ugh, why did they all marry each other? Why?
3.     Alcohol: Daniel suggested that this is really the only modifiable risk factor in my life (and then he suggested I have a kid and I punched him in the face). Sometimes life requires you to drink, just saying. #boathousethrowdown
4.     Having kids…actually make that not having kids: I’m busy. I also cannot keep a house plant alive and today for dinner I had sour skittles from my loser MCE bag. Also, did I mention, I’m busy. So very busy. Where’s the wine?

So yea, I left that lecture not feeling great about things and convinced that everything everywhere causes cancer at all times. I’ve been hunkered down in my room since then. Its safe in here. Although the flame retardants in my mattress might be slowly seeping into my pores.

In preparation for our final, I’ve been reading some delightfully uplifting lines from our syllabus.

“…prognosis is grim.”

“Five year survival is zero.”

“Certain cancer by the age of 30.”

“Once disease progresses it is incurable and will relapse.”

I scan the black and white pages for some reassurance. Occasionally there are faint glimmers of hope scattered in the mire, but ‘30% cure rate,” just doesn’t seem like enough, especially if you’re the other 70%.

If I were a patient reading our Oncology syllabus I would be scared out of my mind. Even though we’re studying the material to learn it for our patients, it scares me that 1 out of 2 men and 1 out of 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer. When I look around the lecture hall, I wonder who it will be.

In addition to being all around horrible, cancer is also a racist asshole. As you know, minorities are far more likely to be diagnosed with and die from cancer1.

If there was a vote-- a la Survivor style, we’d all vote cancer off the island (although I’m pretty sure Nolan is the only one who watches that show anymore).

YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US cancer—because you’re dumb and that vest is disgusting.

I have no idea how patients do it.

The narrative of a patient with cancer is not something I can speak to. But I have read several moving, honest and brave accounts. You can read them here, here and here.

I overheard a doctor in the hospital saying that it is the job of the physician to help patients deal with the uncertainty of life. I think that’s true. I also think that’s way easier when we’re talking about other people’s uncertainty and not our own.

It is also our job as friends to help each other deal with what life throws our way. When my anxiety about all of the worlds ills (including cancer) gets too intense, I avail myself of the hospitality of my friends Julie and Lyndon. They are real adults in the sense that they have clean laundry, food in the fridge and none of their furniture is foldable nor inflatable. Julie cooks me dinner and we lose track of the number of glasses of wine. They are game to watch any documentary I choose (and we have watched some really weird things). And on nights when the world seems an especially scary place, Julie makes us chocolate chip cookies in miniature cast iron skillets. My time with them is some seriously restorative shit. 

I’m pretty sure it causes cancer to worry about your cancer risk too much. Just do the best you can. Don’t smoke, limit your bacon intake, etc. But remember that life is for living and loving and serving—not worrying.

Life is uncertain and scary and weird and no one makes it out alive. My favorite micro professor from undergrad- Dr. Mann (God I hope he reads this) says that we live under a preciously thin veneer of normal. That’s true. I remember it, and then I forget it. I think that’s okay. Let yourself be reminded not to take life for granted, and then forget and take it for granted and let yourself be reminded again.

I think when that happens; it means you are busy living. And that’s a good thing to be busy with.  






1. http://www.cancer.org/research/acsresearchupdates/more/2014-fast-facts-about-cancer-in-minorities

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