Chemo Infusion 3/12—Life vs. Death


I’m generally of an optimistic disposition. I am at the very beginning of my treatment. But I recognize that, to date, I’ve been writing quite positive-sounding “status reports”. It cannot always be so. Depression must surely be a part of the treatment process if one is at all in possession of a balanced emotional spectrum. And so it was, unaccountably, that I arrived at the Cancer Clinic this morning decidedly depressed.  My feelings were stimulated by no particular incident I can recall. It just happened. Although unwanted (in my case, intensely so), I’ll wager that someone will explain to me that my depression is actually healthy in some counterintuitive way whose logic I trust, but have not yet quite figured out.


Surely the overriding cause for depression during chemotherapy is confrontation with death. Not everyone survives who has the blessing of cancer treatment. All too many cancers are fatal to the patient. I, myself, know individuals who have died of cancer, some of whom did “not go gently into the night” (as Dylan Thomas cautioned against) and whom I miss terribly. It is tempting to ask the question “Why did it happen?”  “Why, so early?”  “She/he had so much left to give. Why would God (or any other external agent) let such a thing happen?” “Why can’t we find a remedy?” Ultimately, when one pushes such questions to the extreme, none of them have answers… not just “satisfactory answers”; the questions simply defy answering. There are no answers to such interrogations.

We often formulate our depressed questions within a binary construct of black and white (“life” versus “death”). This may have much to do with the exaggerated meaning we commonly ascribe to death. The term “death”, as we use and understand it, is always used in extremis: defined by the notion of terminal, ultimate, final, irreversible; an ending. All of these concepts are fearsome, indeed.

In fact, however, everything we experience in life invariably involves death. It seems as if life cannot exist without death. Living may be, in some fundamental way, dependent on death in order to be life. We experience this paradox in every category. Mentally: If we did not forget, our brains could not deal with the, second by nanosecond, incoming sensations that the brain continually processes. Physically: If we did not slough off dead skin cells, our largest organ would soon fail to protect us against our (perhaps increasingly hostile) environment. Hematologically: If we did not lose our white blood cells by the thousands, how could our immune system adjust to new bacterial and viral threats that possibly hadn’t existed when we were born? Emotionally: If we did not suffer the sometimes deep agony of break-up and separation, would we not cherish, less, the relationships that sustain us? Spiritually: The important books of many religions describe various iterations of what St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” In each, emerging from this dismal stage of life invariably leads to a renewed sense of self and ushered in an enlightened belonging in Creation.

Recognizing the relationship of life and death in this interlocked, rather than mutually exclusive way, is shocking. It dispels the comfort of the extremes. Black and whites are easier to deal with than the greys that have elusive borders.  We experience an affinity towards extremes at the individual level.  But we do so, as well, at the social level. Human societies exhibit a terribly unsatisfying tendency to reduce complexity to simplistic extremes, of which the following are simply a few contemporary examples: US Government: in the partisanship  that has been poisonous, in my time, since the days of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove. International Relations: through the apparent need to demonize any opponent as “the enemy” (evidenced by counting American deaths in battle by every solitary individual, while passing over [as mere “collateral damage”] the scores of death [indeed, numberless scores] of innocent civilians in foreign countries.) Religion: in the condemnation as heretics, those who—even faithfully committed to a different (not even necessarily contradictory) strain of the same religion—adhere to a variable belief or tradition (Shi’ites vs. Suny adherents to Muhammad’s teachings).

I am not prepared to accept my cancer as having equal merit of existence with the benign cells of my body. Its presence is clearly dangerous to me, as are extremists of all stripes dangerous to our human societies. Both must be thwarted in their design. But I somehow resist labeling cancer as death, when cancer cell’s very activity of rapid generation suggests the opposite. It may even turn out that we are (I have been) complicit in stimulating my cancer into being. Associated with this potentiality is the troubling realization that we tend to deal promptly with evidence but might be better advised to reach deeper toward real underlying causes. Humans, after all, possess the option to apply alternative perspectives to all the problems that face us. Rather than deploying full-body scanners throughout our airports that irradiate us (however minimally, it is claimed), we might find it more productive in quelling terrorism if we seriously addressed the reality and consequences of the fact that we, privileged 20% of the earth’s population, consume 80% of its resources. A sustained medical research effort might be similarly productive: to match the emergence of cancers with only apparently unrelated social decisions (such as technological and economic decisions we have made in agricultural settings to adopt a monoculture growing system with its artificial packaging and economically disastrous delivery systems). Such seemingly innocuous decisions with their unintended consequences seem increasingly to be somehow related to outcomes requiring scientific and especially medical intervention.

Meanwhile, as these somewhat inchoate thoughts rummage around in my mind, a cautionary over-abundance of poisons is being ingested into my body. I have chosen to participate in one Clinical Trial intended to provide data on whether a treatment of 3 month’s duration is as efficacious as a treatment of 6 month’s duration (so widely variable are the guesses about what “works best.”)  My liver strains to filter out as much of the excess poison as possible and undertakes to eliminate the most egregiously harmful elements it identifies.  I find I must urinate.  As I stand in front of the urinal at the Clinic (having towed, behind me, my stand of infusion bags, tubes, and monitoring equipment) I am confronted by a thoughtfully positioned eye-level sign which, alas, does little to dissipate my depression.  It carries a worthy admonition and a frighteningly cautionary reminder: “Chemotherapy Patients—Please Flush Twice.” Nurses, Doctors and staff, I find out, are encouraged not to use these patient-designated facilities, but to employ others down the hall.

To make it worse, I cannot help but wonder where it is to which my flushes are directed. I cannot help but worry that our human species—in its valiant and admirable effort to combat the symptoms of a terrible disease—may be, inadvertently, exposing other species (fish, shellfish, sponges, corals, aquatic plants, swimming amphibians and mammals with whom we share this earth), to molecules and substances they have never before experienced nor have developed the necessary protections by which to defend themselves.


Ingrained habits die hard

Dear Friends,


Its a natural inclination for me to want to learn as much as possible about my illness. My attitude is obviously shared by others. It is certainly reinforced by my immediate community of friends. Folks have been referring me to cancer bibliographies and have been sending scanned articles from medical journals for me to read. Others have sent reference books for me to add to my reading pile. I’ve welcomed them all. It appeared irresponsible of me not to conscientiously get to “know thy [my] enemy.” Lately, I’ve been wondering if the nature of knowledge has changed so much in my lifetime that I should master new techniques to keep up with the growing corpus of knowledge, even in my “little corner” of cancer maladies. But what may be required of me, might in fact be different from adopting new searching and filtering techniques. I may need to understand my role differently, and vest myself with an entirely different attitude about learning and the nature of applied knowledge in my case.


Siddartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies: a biography of cancer, was published by Scribner just last year. Its a book well worth reading for sheer enjoyment, whether one is a cancer patient or not. In his comprehensive work, Mukherjee (a Stanford grad now on the faculty and on the clinical staff at the Columbia University Medical Center) sets the context for his “biography” with a historical overview of what is known about the incidence of cancer in human beings. In the doing, he relates numerous fascinating vignettes of individual researchers, practitioners and patients over the historical record of the disease. Descriptions of interventions and protocols are provided with unstinting candor. The author doesn’t shirk from explaining how the experience of physicians confronting this confounding disease led, sometimes, to bizarre conclusions and deadly methods of treatment. But he reinforces an optimistic belief that—inexorably, and despite sometimes laughable dead-ends—each historical step led to insight and improved understanding about the disease and its effective treatment. Of particular interest to me was the author’s explanation of the intricate web of institutional collaboration and the eventual governmental coordination of cancer research in the United States. In the section of the book that deals with these institutional relationships, Mukherjee describes the grass-roots social advocacy movements that emerged just decades ago, and the ultimately political maneuverings on which funding for cancer research depends.

I found interesting, as well, the several professional medical journal articles I read. Some described, in meticulous dispassionate detail, minute elements of cell structure; others, the various observed processes of metastasization; still others, the elusive chemical traces of the spread or curtailment of cancers. The articles that documented the efficacy of particular chemotherapies to thwart cancer waywardness filled me admiration. Highly sophisticated methodologies are presently employed to study what might be happening in the body as various chemicals are deployed towards their targets. As I read, it became abundantly clear (were it not sufficiently obvious from the very beginning) that I could no more play “catch-up” with the varied specialties involved in my treatment than I can, today, maintain my car in top running condition (my vehicle being less complicated, by far, than my body.)

The first automobile I could claim as “my own” was a four-cylinder Ford “Consul” my Dad had acquired, who knows where, at fourth- or umpteenth-hand for my use. He hoped, I know, that I’d take an interest in helping him dismantle the engine, replace the compression rings on the cylinders, adjust all the timings, and put everything together again to make the engine purr. More challenging (his eyes lit up at the prospect) was taking apart the comparatively simple transmission, replacing the broken teeth of the multiple interlocked gears, with their minutely-calibrated slip-rings, with new ones (some of which he manufactured himself). The car my Dad purchased was a junkyard wreck. The car he restored was a beauty to drive and to behold. After the mechanical overhaul was complete, it even sported a shiny metallic blue paint job. Fortunately, some of my Dad’s joy in making broken things right, has filtered down (who knows by what genetic mechanism?) to his grandson. My son, Michał, occasionally purchases worn-out milk delivery trucks on eBay. He flies to retrieve the carcasses and shepherds them home, where he lavishes enough attention on their repair and restoration to incorporate the trucks into the small fleet of vintage milk-delivery trucks he operates on the San Francisco Peninsula.

The point of this nostalgia is that there was a time, in my lifetime, when automobiles were fixable by their owners. Monica’s Uncle Bob took apart and put back together again in working order, an assortment of broken mantle and wall clocks, much to the amazement of all who knew him (and much to his relaxed satisfaction). I, myself, could competently change the spark plugs on my Consul, complete with properly adjusting the firing gaps on the plugs before replacing them into their cylinders. The mastery of these useful skills depended, in large part, on access to instruction manuals and books. Mechanical devices (like the relatively simple automobiles of my young adulthood) have evolved into the computerized and mother-boarded vehicles of the present. These no longer come supplied with owner’s manuals. If one grows up with the concept that maintaining vehicles is an owner’s responsibility, one easily translates that attitude towards one’s own body. I’m writing about cars, here. They are entirely crude metaphors—but useful ones—to explain what has taken place in the acquisition and mastery of scientific knowledge during the same span of time.

The history of Science—particularly in recent decades—is marked by astounding growth in better understanding the world we inhabit and how it works. Even so, our knowledge is sketchy, at best. Acquisition of scientific knowledge, in my lifetime, has been catapulted forward, however, by communications technologies. These allow massive amounts of data to be stored in a form that allows future access, without requiring prior knowledge about what might need to be retrieved, nor for what purpose. Dauntingly complicated (except, perhaps, to their programmers) software tools have been designed that enable professional collaboration. What has replaced individual competence is, today, the leveraging of insights and experiences of multiple researchers and clinicians (wherever in the world they may be.) What has replaced the owner’s manual, is retrievability of highly beneficial statistical and evidentiary data from patients like me (wherever such data happens to exist… even in a “cloud”). What has replaced the adjustable wrench, is computer-assisted laboratory and clinical equipment of incredible dexterity and sensitivity. As the result of such leveraging, scientific knowledge is expanding geometrically, rather than at the slower linear progression that may have characterized it in the past.

Changes like these in the volume of data and the specialization of discipline have considerable practical consequences for patients like myself. What I know, that is actionable, is precious little (even with respect to my 2001 automobile). My participation in my recovery requires extremely little knowledge of me of the kind I became trained to seek throughout my life. As a percentage of the the growing corpus of knowledge about cancer, my own experiential bit is an ever-diminishing miniscule. Neither can I consult an “owner’s manual” and pretend to be the professional engineer my Dad was (or the armchair physician I might have hoped to have become through my reading.) Nor can I deny my vulnerability (and here’s the rub), by claiming to be able to comprehend anything at all about what is happening with respect to my medical problem. I cannot know all that specialists know, even though I know they don’t know as much as they will know in the future. I cannot know all that generalists know, because I know they know less than the specialists do about the systemic interactions of chemotherapies, cancers, ecologies, personalities, families, and communities. I am left with possibly evaluating the overall positive direction in which protocols for treating cancer are developed. That I can study. I can also look up the statistical success rates of the interventional techniques that are employed at various institutions. But both of these are far removed from the disease, itself. The information consists of distant indicators, at best; and can be misleading, at worst.

What, then, is the nature of my participation in my recovery?  It must be different from the time-honored “study and ‘know’ thine enemy”. My Dad had some clues for me.

My Dad deliberately invoked sensus communis as something august (which is why he invariably used the Latin term) and essential (which is why he repeatedly exhorted me [sometimes with frustrated exasperation, I must admit] to employ it in and throughout my life.) Common sense, as he saw it, depends on a knowledge of self, coupled with a practical command of how the world works. It demands attentiveness. It expects one to predict what to expect, ask pertinent questions, evaluate hypotheses and, gradually, accumulate wisdom. Common sense was, to my Dad, a corollary to “book-learning” and equally important to it. Applying common sense is similarly useful in evaluating when and how to trust others upon whom one increasingly needs to depend in this more complicated and interconnected world.

My reading has informed me about the sophistication and complexity of cancer research. What my reading hasn’t done is educate me in how to be a patient. Nor does my reading help me come to terms with the fact that—like it or not—being a patient is precisely (and exclusively) what my role is. I think I envisioned my role to be more. I think I felt if I could at least absorb enough of the literature, it would objectify my cancer. That would enable me to deny that the place where “the dread disease” found a stronghold was actually within me… in my own body. Common sense admits to two realities. First, that I’ll never know enough about my illness to speak authoritatively. (Although I may get away with it if I use the proper tone of voice at a cocktail party at which there are no medical persons present.) Second, that I can only participate in the cancer-knowledge community as a patient.

To play my role as patient constructively, I need, first, to be highly attentive to my recovery. Then, I need to be entirely willing (perhaps even eager) to accurately share my experiences of side-effects, reactions to therapies, responses to treatments in as alert a manner as possible. I must be compelled that my experience will contribute to the dataset of knowledge on which some future progress might be made. I must take my role seriously, but under no circumstance exaggerate or denigrate it. Such an orientation forcibly changes my attitude for the good. Neither should I second-guess my care-giver’s decisions; nor am I merely a helpless bystander in the face of my ignorance.

Accordingly, what I will report on my next visit to the Cancer Clinic next week is that my chemotherapy has been—thus far—kind to me (though, I trust, not so kind to my cancer. That yet remains to be seen.) Many foods taste metallic. I fear I may smell “chemical”. My normally regular circadian rhythms of bathroom visits for elimination have become unpredictable. Various degrees of diarrhea are common. Feelings (perhaps imaginary, caused by my being worried about it) of neuropathy seem to exist in my toes. Oddly, I experience a sharp disabling pain of 15-45 seconds’ duration, every time I take food or drink into my mouth after not having eaten for a period of half an hour or so. (This side-effect has been reported by one other patient in my Cancer Clinic.) The pain is centered beneath my ear lobes, about the point where my jaw hinges and where, apparently, several salivary glands are located. Other than these entirely manageable effects, I feel physically well. But I am paying attention to anything else I can dutifully and accurately report.

If I cannot be more than a patient, I can be an active, attentive patient. I can take pride in that.



Mukherhjee’s Book on Amazon