Chemo Infusion 3/12—Life vs. Death

Summary

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.

Detail

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.

Chet