World Cancer Day 2/6/23

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Yes, this is a late post. I would have posted it yesterday, but I was having too much fun with idiots shooting at Chinese spy balloons which somehow feels more prescient to me, so even though I’m writing this literally on World Cancer Day, it won’t post until today, two days late. But it’s an important topic, and one the touches me deeply, so I wanted to write on it.

When I was in graduate school, one of our new fellow graduate students found a lump in his penis while masturbating. Yes, you can laugh at that if you like. A month later he was dead. Well, I never promised not to make you uncomfortable for laughing at it.

It’s the first and only time that I had heard of cancer of the penis. I feel horrible about this because for that entire month he was in a hospital. I live with the regret of always intending to visit him, but never deciding to take the time to do so. Notice that I’m not saying, “not having the time”. The reality is that we take the time to do those things that are important to us. My friends Karen and Jim visited him frequently, and to the best of my knowledge, they were the only ones among us to do so.

Not very long ago, cancer was considered to be a death sentence. Treatment was horrendous, and the prognosis was almost always bad. My first college was a part of the Kettering Medical Center where, just a few years earlier, they had developed a technique of focused radiation treatment. Before then, radiation treatment was more or less over the entire (or a large part of) the body. This was a tremendous breakthrough in targeting those cells and areas, while avoiding excessive damage to other parts of the body.

Radiation treatment and chemotherapy are both brutal and flawed concepts in general. Because cancer cells divide more quickly than normal, giving rise to the cancerous growths, more cancerous cells are mid-mitosis (in the process of dividing) than surrounding healthy cells. As such, both radiation and chemotherapy target those cells that are vulnerable because they are mid-mitosis. The problem is that certain organs naturally have a high rate of mitosis, such as our livers and bone marrow. This is why these treatments do so much damage to these organs. Still, for many years, this was the best option we had short of surgery. The typical treatment was to remove the cancerous growth, which was very difficult because the tumor often had tendrils that extended far beyond the main mass, and to nick or miss these would mean that the surgery would fail. As such, even with surgery, chemo or radiation therapy were still used, and sometimes both, just to kill off any cells that may have been missed.

Today, there are exciting new treatments that are showing incredible promise, but they are based on the genome of the patient and highly specific to the individual. This means that these treatments are very expensive, requiring a great deal of genetic testing and bioengineering. Because they’re still largely experimental and expensive, insurance companies are refusing to pay for these treatments, even if all other forms of treatment have already been attempted raising a serious ethical question. Just how much is a human life worth, and should insurance companies have the right to owning what amounts to the death sentence on these people?

Although I’ve never faced cancer personally (kind of surprising considering my dietary habits), it has nonetheless touched me deeply. One of my very great friends has faced cancer, as has both of her sisters. One of them was only recently diagnosed (within the past year or two), and my friend successfully battled her affliction and seems to be in remission, although the damage done to her body by the cancerous growth continues to this day. Her other sister, who is a personal hero of mine, is fighting like a champion. It is my understanding that she was given only a few months to live, and that was several years ago. She managed to get onto one of the experimental studies for that genome-based treatment and has been fighting ever since. The fight has taken its toll, however, and she has been told a few more times that it would only be weeks a few times since that first prognosis, and yet she fights and lives another day. Her attitude, always positive, is no doubt a major contributing factor to her success, and yet the battle hasn’t been easy. She continues to lose weight, even as she looks as if there is no more weight that can be lost, and is increasingly frail. My heart goes out to her, and I’m so proud of her for what she has accomplished. When she does go, I know that I will weep.


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