As spring continues to spread across the island, I can’t help but want to be out in the yard. The first signs of renewed life start to appear in our yard in late March and so do the weeds. Weeds are proof that life and all the mutant (deviant) forms of foliage can adapt and prosper, often regardless of our efforts to remove or eradicate them. On a good day in the garden we can work diligently cultivating and weeding and still find persistent weed sprouts just below the surface as we put away our tools. Cancer research and treatment is much like weeding. As the garden begins to prosper, healthy flowers and plants crowd out the weeds and wage a successful battle for nutrition and space. I like to think that smart and dedicated researchers, gardeners of the human genome, constantly look to find ways to sort out the weed seeds, and promote the growth of the good ones. Like weeds in the garden, we sometimes can live with cancer, sometimes we can’t.
As I stood in the cemetery the other day as another member of our community who succumbed to cancer was eulogized, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the not so distant past fear and awe cancer often strikes into hearts and minds of our families and loved ones diagnosed with cancer. We know that certain cancers humans suffer from may be related to lifestyle while others remain mysterious in origin. I am certain we do have some culpability for our health and lifestyle choices. My father was a heavy smoker for most of his life so it was not a surprise that he suffered and died from lung cancer. His lifestyle choices led to growth of the “weed seeds” taking over. We still miss him dearly. And while our best and brightest work hard to treat this form of cancer the options for treatment and long-term success are still limited.
One doctor described certain cancer treatments as “hitting a flea with a sledgehammer”. In the garden it would be akin to using a backhoe to remove a weed. Amazing progress however, in treating many cancers is being waged across the country. The Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Cleveland Clinic, The James Cancer Hospital, and Sloan Kettering all have worked in specific areas to modify or improve available treatments to increase successful outcomes.
Five years ago I was standing dazed in the waiting room of the mortuary as my sons and I picked up the ashes of my wife Cheryl. She struggled for almost four years with a rare form of Lymphoma. In 2001, when she was diagnosed, cancer care had progressed in many areas, but doctors had limited methods for isolating her specific rare form of blood cancer. They employed the shovel method of treatment, but after four years her immune system was left with so many holes that she could not fight infection. Since 2005 researchers (at the Dana Farber) have continued to isolate the earliest signs of cancer and the genetic signatures that provide doctors with markers for detection. While the “miracle cure” has still not yet been invented, what has happened is threefold. Earlier detection in tumor based cancers, better identification of the specific form of genetic cancer “markers”, and the use of the most effective “target specific” treatments and therapies to attack them.
In effect, what has happened is that we can now remove certain weeds with a tablespoon instead of a construction backhoe. The success of this more effective weeding means that certain forms of cancer, like prostrate, uterine and breast cancer, can now be detected much earlier, sometimes even treated with non-invasive forms of preventative treatment like a vaccine. Early detection, more targeted therapy, means that we now have better more effective use of established tools to see real tangible success in treating specific cancers.
Finally, the most impressive change, one most often left off the list, is that of patient care. Places like Dana Farber have become leaders in providing compassionate in hospital care, palliative counseling and long-term survivor support. With a thriving active community of doctors, caregivers and patients networked together, families and patients have better access to qualified information for informed decision making. A consummate gardener, my wife Cheryl was positive to the end. In fact the nurses at the hospital had told me she had been an inspiration, living proof that we can be full of grace and dignity in the face of adversity. Her journey was better than those who came before her. We can work to make those who’s journey come later more hopeful and full of options.
I am forever grateful for the support and care my wife got at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital. Each year we have more choices, better options, earlier detection, and important research making longer survival possible. There are so many cancers that we don’t have even adequate treatment tools for yet. But, we are not alone in this process; there is proof of life beyond cancer all around us. You can make a difference; get involved in raising awareness and funds for cancer research.
Dedicated to the Cheryl Cornwell-Huston (lymphoma 1951-2005)