Archive for the ‘biology’ Category

Ol’ Cancer

May 6th, 2010

I’ve received a somewhat strong response to my last post, which is great. Keep the comments and email coming. Regarding that post, many have questioned my final comment about sympathy for my cancer. To be sure, I chose that word to be provocative, but I do have sympathy for all life that is marked for extermination (in this case, by my hand). I have sympathy for the forest that is clear-cut, and I have sympathy for the cattle that we grow to kill and eat. Of course these organisms are not trying to kill me, so naturally my sympathy is greater for them. But I don’t think my cancer is trying to kill me either.

Natural selection dictates that those that are more adept at doing whatever allows them to leave more offspring will be more common in future generations. If their reproductive advantage is heritable, then the traits that allowed them to be more numerous will also be more and more common in the population over time. Imagining, again, that our bodies are a colony of cells, or a nest of wasps, or a school of fish, or whatever, then it’s easy to see why slowly reproducing individuals or individuals that don’t reproduce at all will become less and less numerous over time relative to a rapidly reproducing member of the same group. I thought I’d made clear the restricted sense in which I invoked that term, sympathy.

Looking back, perhaps I could’ve been clearer, but that’s the nature of blogging. The arguments are made mostly extemporaneously, a kind of stream of consciousness. The entire work is presented piecemeal, across days, and new entries sometimes only make sense in light of previous posts. Plus my chief editor is on permanent leave. (Actually, Greg helps a lot with editing.) So I will clarify (or retort) a bit. I don’t mean to criticize any who have responded. (We normally live in Vermont, where I think criticism of what others have said is illegal). I’m just reasserting clarifying my view for the enjoyable dialogue.

When I first read some of the objections, the situation reminded me of a conversation I once had with a Physician’s Assistant who was at the time coring a hole in my ileum for bone marrow. During that delightful visit, we had a chat. At one point, I made some comment along the lines of what I’ve been saying here: The cancer cells are just doing their thing, trying to stay alive, like any creature. Stunned, he looked at me at asserted, “But cancer is bad.” I thought about his short sentence for a long time, and given the context of our conversation, he could only have meant one thing: Cancer is morally bad. Now, don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t suggesting that I had cancer because of my moral failings or past-life no-nos (although I’m amazed at how many do believe such things, and will actually tell me about it to my face). He meant that the cancer itself was evil. You know, just like how wolves are evil for eating cute bunnies.

I now get it that some of you thought that I had written the wrong word, intending instead to say empathy. The substance of the post shows my empathy for my cancer, certainly. I just wanted to express something else for the life that I am desperately trying to kill. That life is not evil; I just find myself in conflict with it.

Obviously, I hate (and I mean that word, too) that I have cancer. I often say (usually to poke fun at the bright-siders) that the only thing I’ve learned from cancer is that I don’t want to have it. I want each and every cell destroyed. Why else would I have endured four years of off-and-on therapy, with the last two years’ mostly futile treatments being virtually continuous. Just because I know the cancer cells are not trying to kill me does not mean I will relent in trying, by any means necessary, to kill them. Self-preservation trumps sympathy.

I invite dissent and alternate perspectives. I’m not doing this just to get my ideas out there; I hope to learn something from this blogging experience too. But I did say what I meant. Just because I have some sympathy for my cancer doesn’t mean I want to help it or keep it as a pet. Who didn’t have sympathy and cry for Ol’ Yeller? But that diseased, frothing mongrel still had to die.

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Conflict between the individual and the group

May 5th, 2010

Okay, I know.  I didn’t actually blog again last night.  Sorry for that, but since I’ve been feeling so, so, so much better, I’ve begun to realize just how much work I was laying aside.  I’ve been catching up.

So as a mini-catchup,  I’ll offer this symbol and some thoughts:

Polistes in Thoreau's attic

Polistes in Thoreau's attic

This is a nest of the genus Polistes—from the attic of the home where Henry David Thoreau was born. (Really.  You’ll just have to trust me on this, okay?)  Greg and I visited Walden Pond and toured Concord with expert historian Joseph Wheeler (grandfather of a good friend of ours, and son of the historian Ruth R. Wheeler, author of Concord: Climate for Freedom) just before I was admitted for my stem cell transplant, over seven weeks ago.

My greatest intellectual influences, without a doubt, come from the 1800s.  Marx, Engels, Darwin, Kropotkin, Emerson, Whitman, and of course Thoreau.   Like millions of other American High School students, I was especially influenced by the Transcendentalists.  But unlike some of my other 19th Century influences, the Transcendentalists—and especially Thoreau, I think—were caught in a kind of struggle.  They all wanted to forge a better world, and they all believed in cooperative alliances and effort; many joined communes and similar groups.  But the Transcendentalists were also great advocates of the individual, and the individual spirit.  This is especially true of Thoreau, who famously retreated from society, lived alone for a few years, and even went to jail in solitary protest against slavery.  At the same time, his writings and his message influenced Gandhi and MLK to reshape society through coordinated group action.  Thoreau is like Polistes.

Polistes is a one of the varieties of wasp I discussed in an earlier post, the kind in which groups of females, all able to have offspring, initially fight to become the egg layer and queen of the colony. There is little-to-no physical evidence of division of labor—no obvious anatomical queen and worker castes.  Eventually, the losers in combat settle down, sort of, and become workers.  But the social group is composed of would-be individualists, biding their time for an opportunity to shrug off their worker roll and take the queen’s throne.  It is a group that exhibits cycles of social behavior interrupted by periods of solitary behavior.  Polistes are the Transcendentalists of the wasp world, symbolically bridging the gap between selfish and altruist, individual and group.

This is how I see Thoreau. For humans as individuals, this might be a good, stable state.  For wasps, it’s unclear to me.  For the colony of cells in our bodies, such conflict is decidedly unwelcome—and when it happens, we call it cancer.

But are our individual cells slave to some purely communist totalitarian society?  Why wouldn’t they “prefer” individuality, a notion so decidedly American?  Does our body’s proper functioning demand that our worker cells (that form our kidney’s, lungs, livers, and, of course, blood) be oppressively chained to a social contract that forces them into a single roll (despite having all the genes needed to perform any roll), never allows them to reproduce freely (many are unable to divide after a point, and all are restricted), and then ultimately commit suicide (apoptosis) when the group so decides? What a dystopian nightmare!

So, as strange as it may sound, from a perspective of freedom, and rejoicing in the individual at all levels—ideas that ignited my intellect and set me on a path to activism and my current study so many years ago—I have sympathy for my cancer.  I cannot blame those cells for wanting to be free.

UPDATE:  See this post.

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Busy (and greasy) today, hospital visit tomorrow

May 3rd, 2010

I’ve received tons of great feedback from the blog, and I fully intend to keep blogging, hopefully one or two posts per day minimum.

But today I had a lot of work to catch up on (some of which I got done), and the fact that we can’t bathe makes me sleepy, greasy and grumpy . . . and not much in the mood for blogging.  We can’t bathe because a water main ruptured on Saturday, and now the Boston water supply is contaminated with fecal bacteria.  Just the extremely uncommon event I need right now, eh?  As a result, of course drinking tap water is out, which isn’t a big deal.  But showering is also out—too dangerous for me.  So last night I boiled water for hours, slowly filling the tub to take what was ultimately a very unsatisfying bath.  I woke up this morning feeling gross.  And bathing is very important for me in my condition.  Accumulating bacteria is not exactly what I need to be doing right now.  We considered grabbing a hotel in P-town (cheap right now, before peak season), but then we’d have to contend with carpet, and curtains, and any microbiological gifts the previous visitors might’ve left.  So we just stayed put.  Boston water officials are estimating that the water will be potable again tomorrow afternoon.

And to add to the good times, tomorrow I have my weekly hospital appointment.  Walking into a hospital, with all of its multi-drug resistant strains of god knows what is always a bit difficult. Sitting in a crowded waiting room is even more unnerving.  But, in general I actually enjoy meeting with my physician, and our meetings always go quite well.  If my red blood cells, platelets and magnesium are all in good shape, the appointment will be fast.  If not—if I need a blood transfusion, a platelet transfusion, or a magnesium infusion—I’ll be at the hospital all day long tomorrow.

Red blood cell and platelet transfusions are not awful.  I usually break out in hives—likely due to mismatches in subtle details of blood chemistry.  Sometimes this can lead to the development of antibodies, and therefore immune reaction against blood products, but luckily that has not happened to me.  It’s the magnesium that’s so tough.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m taking a drug called tacrolimus to prevent Graft Verus Host Disease—in which my new immune system (correctly) recognizes that my body’s tissue are foreign, and attacks them.  The tacrolimus is part of the chemical milieu that tricks my new immune system into accepting my body’s tissues as self.  It also leaches magnesium out of my body.  I mentioned earlier that I had to take supplements because of my malnutrition, but I didn’t provide details.  A normal daily supply of magnesium is up to 400 milligrams; I was taking six times that for weeks early on, and even then my magnesium was too low.  Very low magnesium means vigorous, uncontrollable shaking, and left for too long, nerve damage (and I already have that from four years of chemo, thank you).  Over time, the kidneys accommodate and stop leaching the magnesium.  But I’m not sure that’s happening to me yet.  If it’s not, I may have to have a magnesium infusion.  The problem with magnesium infusions is that they make me feel like I’m being burned from the inside—and they take hours; one time I was infused for five hours; my physician did not order that torture (a nurse practitioner did, despite my protestations).  And since that lovely experience, my physician has been very good about allowing me to increase my oral doses so I don’t have to endure the infusions, but there is a limit to how much I can take by mouth, as it too causes diarrhea.  Sheesh!

The point is, I might have a quick day tomorrow, or it could be a long, rotten day.  I guess you’ll know which easily enough: If I don’t post, it’ll be because it was a bad day.

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Boo Yankees!

May 1st, 2010

I haven’t read the literature on this myself, but my oncologist tells me the data are strong that taking walks—or just getting up and about—has a significant impact on recovery, especially regarding fatigue.  So, as I’m feeling so much better (being able to eat tends to do that), my partner Greg and I decided to take a walk today.  We just got back.

Now, going out is no small thing.  We have to select a very open place, with few people, not a lot of dirt or dust in the air, and not much wind.  I have to wear a mask and gloves to prevent acquiring an infection.   Sunblock is required on all exposed skin, so as to avoid stimulating my immune system, which might risk Graft Versus Host Disease (more on that later).  For the same reason I have to wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt, and, because I’m bald, a hat.  So, days ago, my handsome, sweet, loving Greg—who, bless his heart, knows nothing about baseball—went to the store and bought me sunblock and a hat . . . a New York Yankees cap.   And we’re living in . . . ahem . . . Boston.

So, we happen to be living across the street from Church Park, the so-called “mother ship” of the Christian Scientists—who, you know, dismiss medicine in favor of laying on of hands, prayer, and dead children. (Don’t get me started.)  Anyway, we walked around their reflecting pool, and by the time we got to the other side, my feet were starting to hurt pretty bad from the neuropathy—which has been much better, but walking really brings it out.  So we headed home.  No one had commented on my hat, and I thought we were going to slide into home plate, safe.  Alas, steps from our door, a group of snarky young men, seeing my hat, said, “He’s wearing that mask so he won’t get contaminated by the Red Sox.  Boo Yankees!”

I just want to point out that I despise the Yankees, and this is not my fault.

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Colony and individual: Cancer and cheating wasps

April 30th, 2010

I study wasps.  That’s what I do.

Solitary wasps, like most animals, live their life . . . well, in solitude.  Except to mate, they tend to stay away from other members of their own species.  Some build small nests for their young, and some provide a modicum of parental care—the first steps toward social habit—but they do not live together in groups.

Social wasp colonies come in a variety of flavors.  Some are composed of tentatively co-existing individuals, and little cooperation happens, except to share a nest.  Some social wasps join together to make a group, and they fight to see who gets to be the queen.  The one that wins gets to lay eggs, subjugates the others, and the others often try relentlessly to overthrow her rule; they want to lay eggs too, and they have the ovaries to do so, but they often just settle for being a worker, a forager, a builder—and if they lay an egg or two, it’s surreptitiously.  I think it’s easy to see that this is a rather unstable social group, and even in these groups there are cycles of social behavior interrupted with solitary behavior.  Both social and solitary interests are obvious.

Other social wasps are more interconnected.  Some wasps in Central and South America (including Apoica) form large colonies of individuals who cooperate extremely well.  In this derived situation, the worker wasps are much more numerous, and they now run the show—they subjugate the queens, often kicking potential or undesirable queens out of the nest.  And the workers are workers, forever.  They can’t lay eggs. (They just don’t have developed ovaries; there are exceptions of course, but in general, they don’t.)  Only the queens have the properly developed organs needed to lay eggs.  Here, we see the first permanent and most fundamental subdivision of labor necessary for stable social habit:  The division of labor between the reproductives and the sterile workers.

The workers often come in different shapes and sizes;  the queen differs from them.  These differently equipped sterile workers work—they defend the nest; they forage for food, water and wood, which they macerate into pulp for the nest; they repair damage; they build new parts; they feed the young; and they dispose of the dead.   The queen does none of these.  Well, in some instances she may initiate the paper cells into which she lays the eggs, but other than that, she lays eggs and does little more.

None of these wasps are ever alone; when the colony gets too big, a group of queens and a group of workers, and rarely a small cohort of males (the workers are all female) fly to a new site and begin a new nest.  The solitary life has been completely abandoned; the division of labor has made sure of that. These wasps are almost certainly locked, or approaching being locked, into sociality. The queen doesn’t forage and the workers all work.  They have specialized so much that reversal to the solitary habit would be difficult . . . but it does happen.

Rogue wasps defy the structure and reverse in their behavior to the ancestral, the solitary.  They eat food, take resources, enjoy protection, and contribute nothing. Sometimes they are outright aggressive (recall, solitary wasps don’t like to be around others).  They lay eggs (against the rules), and their offspring may inherit their tendencies.  They are commonly called “cheaters,” because they don’t keep the social compact.  They often lose in their mission that if unchecked could disrupt the entire social system.  They are ejected, or killed by other workers. But sometimes, their rogue efforts go unchecked, and the entire colony then can be at risk of collapse.  Because they shrug off their roll as worker (no doubt due to a random mutation), and reject the division of labor upon which the colony is based, the entire system can fail.

Other wasps have taken these divisions of labor even further.  In some hornets, for example, preliminary evidence suggests that the larvae of the nests, the young, are the only individuals who can digest food.  The adults feed the larvae, and the larvae feed back to the adults digested vomit and spit.  If the adults are separated from the larvae, they die of starvation.

This work, ongoing in my lab, is preliminary, as I said, but intriguing if true.  This would mean that the genes to digest food (which they all have) have been silenced in the adults, and only the workers express those genes and have those proteins and enzymes.  The larvae have become workers of a new and specialized type.  They have become the digesters of the colony.  They have become the stomach.  Division of labor has arrived at a new, extreme level: the development of tissues, organs.

So why am I writing about all of this?  Partly, of course, because this is the stuff I think about all the time: wasps, and the transition for solitary to social.  But I see clear connections to our bodies, and to cancer.  My view is not novel, to be sure, but for me it is comforting, in a way.

Each of us is a giant colony of intimately cooperating individual cells.  They all descend from a single cell.  At the first division, they could separate and go their own way, like bacteria do all the time.  But they don’t, at least not usually.  Sometimes this is exactly what happens.   A very good friend of mine was in the early stages of pregnancy years ago, before I knew her.  It isn’t clear exactly what happened, but something like this is plausible:  At some point during the early stages, an unfertilized egg, or the embryo’s cells, or some cell incurred a random mutation.  The mutation caused the cell to revert to its ancestral, primitive instincts.  That one cell shrugged off the social contract and started dividing without control. The cells would divide and go their own way, just like their ancestral bacterial brethren, with no cooperative instinct remaining.  In other words, one of the embryonic cells became a “cheater” in the social contract.  It didn’t play its roll, take its position as a worker, or as they are commonly called, a differentiated cell type. The cheater had the potential to destroy the entire colony, my friend.   In wasps, these mutants are called “cheaters.”   When it happens in us, we call it cancer.  (My friend has been cancer-free for years, thanks to chemotherapy.)

But usually, the cells all stay in line.  They don’t divide and go their own way; they divide, and stay, and differentiate into tissues—various subcastes of the worker caste.  Once we’re born, these cells do various things:  they defend the body; they distribute food; they repair damage; they build new parts; and they dispose with the dead.   The sex cells do none of these.  Sound familiar?

For my cancer, the correspondence is crystal clear.  In my case, the particular mutation that occurred was demonstrated genetically.  In my case two of my chromosomes in a single cell physically crossed over on another.  And when the crossing over occurred, the top part of one chromosome was attached to the bottom of the other, and vice versa.  This is a common enough occurrence, especially for germ, or sex cells (you know, our queen caste).  But in this case, when this happened, a particular gene, named bcl-2, was placed in contact with a so-called hyper-promoterenhancer—a region of DNA that controls the expression, the copy rate, of a gene. Bcl-2 makes a protein, and placed next to this hyper-promoterenhancer, it started making a lot of this protein.

This particular protein—from an ancient gene that we share with nearly all cellular life—in multi-cellular organisms controls a phenomenon seen in their cells called apoptosis, programmed cell death.  Programmed cell death is a fundamental part of the social contract of our bodies, our apoikas of individual cells.  In such a group environment, cells can’t divide without end, and they can’t stay forever.  Cells must die sometimes, and make way for other cells, else the group of cells—our bodies—may have problems.

And here was the crux of my problem.  The more bcl-2 that is expressed, the more easily a cell can resist signals to kill itself. So in me, when bcl-2 started being hyper-expressed in that one cell, it became immortal.  And with that, the social contract was broken, and the cell started off on its own way, dividing and giving to all its daughter cells the same tendencies.  As this social cheater continued to pursue its selfish interest, the whole colony—my body—started having problems.  And I got sick, as those immortal daughters became so numerous that they began to clog up passageways, organs, and vessels.

This is the natural history of my cancer, follicular b-cell lymphoma, the best example that proves cancer cells are nothing more than cheater wasps at the nest.  From their perspective (that is, from a selection standpoint), being freed from programmed cell death ain’t a bad thing at all.  Individuals that leave more offspring win, right?  This cell was on Logan’s Run . . . and having lots of babies at the same time.  The problem is, all those cells that are (were?) in my body don’t have global knowledge, and so they don’t realize that they are sealing their own fate:  If the colony dies, so do they, in this case.  There is no complete reversal to the free-living single cell.  We’ve evolved too far for that.  Or have we . . . (more on that later).

This is my view.  I just wanted to share it.  I am comforted by it, because I understand the how and the why of my cancer.  I have never once asked “Why is God doing this to me?”  That’s just never been in my head.  I know why I have cancer, and I understand that the cancer cells in my body—once freed from the social contract—are just like bacterial invaders.  They are trying to make their way, and reproduce, like all other creatures.  It’s simply an unavoidable consequence of nature.

UPDATE: The distinction between a promoter and an enhancer is subtle, and I won’t go into it here. But I needed to correct it, because in an attempt to write generally, what I wrote was technically incorrect.

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Plants are spiritually clean?

April 30th, 2010

A reader writes:

I have to tell you I disagree on your statement that “only plants are spiritually clean” on killing others to survive. Plants are as vicious as any other living organism. There are plants that release herbicides through their roots to kill or stun the competition. See examples that I found on the internet;

and how about carnivorous plants! They are down right killers.

I would certainly not leave parasitic plants off the hook either – they may not shoot to kill, but they sure make their living out of other plants and even fungi.

There! That’s my 2 cents. ;-)

Agreed.  I spoke too generally.  I should’ve said, “some plants.”  And this just shows that the biological conflict I was discussing is even more pervasive than I described.  Life is indeed red, in tooth and claw . . . and root.

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Being Katharine Hepburn

April 29th, 2010

One of the drugs I’m on for immunosuppression makes me shake constantly.  It’s getting annoying. This side effect, coupled with the neuropathy in my hands, makes simple tasks, like lifting a fork, difficult.  I wonder if this is a glimpse into how people with Parkinson’s feel?  Probably nowhere nearly as bad, but it bites nonetheless.

The drug, tacrolimus, is not used widely for stem cell transplants, but is used generally for kidney transplants.  It’s strange that I’m struggling to rebuild my immune system, and I’m taking drugs to slow that process way down.  But this is part of the dance—coaxing the new cells to slowly, ever so slowly open their eyes, and think that what they see is self.  If they wake up too quickly, they’ll see clearly and attack.

A related immunosuppressive drug that I’m taking, sirolimus, is used probably by even fewer stem cell transplant centers, but the data on this drug are impressive.  As an inhibitor of the mammalian Target Of Rapamycin (mTOR; indeed, sirolimus is rapamycin), it blocks a complex cascade by which cells proliferate, and so all is slowed down.  The new cells are very sleepy.

I’m very lucky to have these drugs.  My current physician is rare in that he does clinical research, and he is actually good at it (this is rare among physicians).  These immunosuppressive drugs, coupled with other novel treatments, are the reason my hospital’s success with stem cell transplants is so much higher than the national average.  Every day I am grateful that I have the care I have (and my praising physicians is as rare as their conducting good research, so that should tell you how confident I am in my physician).

It is worth noting that both of these chemicals are natural derivatives of bacteria:  tacrolimus comes from one species of Streptomyces, sirolimus from another species of the same genus.  In fact, most of the chemotherapies I’ve had are naturally occurring biological products.  Vincristine—one of the first chemotherapies I ever took, and a potent inhibitor of cell division—comes from the Madagascar periwinkle, once placed in the genus Vinca, where the drug gets its name.  Adriamycin, a chemotherapy that damages DNA directly, is also derived from bacteria. And an experimental drug currently showing great promise, Gossypol, is an unaltered, direct extract of the cotton plant, found in the stems, roots and seeds.  This drug directly blocks bcl-2, the epicenter of my cancer’s existence, but more on that later.

I could go on and on.  Hundreds of our pharmaceuticals come directly from natural sources.   The only difference between so-called “natural” medicine and “western” medicine, again, is that the latter is subjected to careful testing, and the former is not.

I can’t believe I could type all that with this much shaking.

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Cancer is material

April 29th, 2010

You’ll notice I’ve added that image to the blog, a link to The OUT Campaign, a site dedicated to encouraging atheists to come out about their views.  This is something that I’ve had a hard time doing for many years, despite overcoming many other fears years ago (for example, having been out as a gay man since I was sixteen).

The main reason it’s been hard for me to tell others about my atheism is that I have many friends and loved ones who are believers, and I cherish their company, respect their choices, and would hate to offend them.  I have not posted this image to offend anyone.

But for this blog, it makes sense.  Pervasive in our culture is the view that mystical forces—unseen and all-powerful, ancient and misunderstood—are the true solution to cancer.  As Sontag observed in her incredible work, Illness as Metaphor, this view is common to all diseases when the ultimate cause of the disease is unknown, or poorly understood.  For people with cancer, we often become desperate and despondent when therapies fail—I know these feelings all too well.   And so many turn their hope to magical, “eastern” therapies.  As far as I can tell, the only difference between the evil “western” medicine and the enlightened “eastern” “medicine” is that the former has, by definition, been subjected to empirical test, and the latter has not.

But people who hold these unscientific views are unrepentant: About a year ago, I was visiting some friends after yet another therapy had failed, and my cancer had doubled in volume; I was, I think understandably, disappointed, sad, and probably a bit grumpy.  And a person I had only met a day before told me that people who are happy are more likely to survive cancer than sad people.  When I asked for the name of the peer-reviewed journal from which this insight derives, she said she thought she read it in Omni Magazine (a discredited, discontinued, pseudo-scientific publication that promoted supernatural phenomena cloaked in the language of science). Her message here was clear:  It’s your fault that you’re loosing this battle; cheer up, or face the consequences.  (That fall, the fabulous Barbara Ehrenreich eviscerated this nonsensical view; you can find an excerpt here.) So I asked her if she thought it would help if I shoved a crystal up my ass.  She was not amused, and I think, remained unaware of the horrific statement she’d made.  Her husband (another atheist), standing next to me, hung his head in shame.

The view that crystals, and prayer, and laying on of hands can cure people of cancer is growing in our culture.  When last in the hospital, with my horrific C. difficile infection, a staff member came into my room one day and explained that she could perform Reiki on me, which would help my nausea.  My nausea was caused, as she put it, “of course, by unbalanced energy.”  Um, no: My nausea was caused by an infection, thank you very much.

And this is quite strange, given the growing success of modern medicine’s treatment of cancer. Just look at the death rates for breast cancer below.

From the American Cancer Society's "Statistics for 2009."

Death rates were essentially stable or rising prior to the early 90′s, when genetic techniques (and thus, intimate understanding) first became available.  Crystals and the like were being used just as much in the 70′s (probably more), but it was the science that made the impact, not the white light visualizations.  The biological research that informs physicians is imperfect, and many still die, but this does not mean we are failing.  Science is recursive, unlike any other system of knowledge; it challenges itself, by its nature, to prove existing ideas wrong.  Still, not all cancers show this pattern, but the science that biologists use to discover details of the natural world inform physicians, who employ this knowledge to save lives.  And many lives have been saved.

But this hasn’t stopped many people from thinking otherwise.  Stanley Tucci recently lost his wife to a form of cancer, and in a Fresh Air interview proclaimed that she did not die of cancer, but of the “conventional” treatments for cancer (the discussion of cancer begins at 18:35,  and Tucci’s comments on alternative therapies begin at 19:30).  Tucci went on to say that he only found out about “alternative” (that is, not subjected to empirical test) therapies months before his wife’s death, and concluded that had he known of these alternatives earlier, his wife would still be alive.  I love Tucci; in fact he is one of my favorite actors, and I’m sure he is horribly bereaved; but this is just irresponsible.

Similarly, Bill Maher—famous anti-vaccine and anti-medicine advocate—in April of 2008 blamed Senator Arlen Specter for having cancer, and for his cancer’s relapse. (I would link to the YouTube video where I watched this, but it has apparently been deleted by HBO, even though many other Real Time episode clips from the same month remain.  Hmm.)

I have watched Maher off and on for years. I agree with much of what he says, and I think he’s brave and smart.  But for some reason, when it comes to medicine, he has lost all rationality. Maybe it’s because he’s lived in California for so long.  Who knows?   Only in a world where infectious disease has—with a few notable exceptions—been completely obliterated by medical action that derives from basic biological science, would someone claim that the real problem is the vaccine, the solution.  And I could put many links to The Huffington Post (which I generally enjoy) with similarly inane assertions.  Maybe I’ll do so in a later entry (but you can see for yourself in their Living section on any given day).  And just look back 70 years, and consider the hundreds of thousands of children who died then of infections we now rarely see—infections we have conquered, and in some cases eradicated, with vaccines—and it is clear that Maher’s hyper-modern, myopic view is flatly false.

Microorganisms are living things, and they are merely trying to stay alive, just like us. It just so happens that they make their living by harming ours.  We are no different; we must kill life to live as well. Only the plants are spiritually clean on this one.  So, good nutrition will not save the world from this biological conflict; variation in resistance exists everywhere, and bacteria and viruses evolve, becoming more adept at overcoming our defenses.  Good nutrition alone will not prevent infection, and many will succumb without the enormous benefit of medicine.  It’s quite perplexing (and, increasingly infuriating) to watch Maher rant against religion as stupid in one breath, and in the next proclaim that good nutrition is the solution to illness, and therefore cancer therapies are bogus, and pregnant women should not get vaccines.

So I am not writing this with Maher’s intent.  I’m not here to defame religion.  I’m simply putting this link in my blog because it is honest, and it is a reminder of an important fact that both people with cancer and their loved ones need to remember:  Cancer is a material condition; it requires a material solution.

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“Oh, congratulations on your stem cell transplant!”

April 24th, 2010

I have had cancer for many years (officially diagnosed two months shy of four years ago, but I had it for years before it was finally diagnosed).  So, I know that many people—most people—have no idea what to say to you when they find out or when they see you after you’ve been ill, or whenever. I get it:  No one knows how to react to cancer.  I certainly understand.  But for all the good intentions, it is hard not be be slack-jawed at the things some people say. A couple of days ago it was, “Congrats on your stem cell transplant.” I’ve heard this one a few times before. Congratulations?  Really?

Since the first day after diagnosis, this was the one procedure that I was hoping to avoid.  It is not at all guaranteed to work, and the risks are extreme.  The fact that it ever works at all is quite impressive.  Coaxing someone else’s immune system to play nice inside a completely different body?  I mean, talk about cellular altruism!  These new cells should rip my body to shreds, and they surely would were it not for years of careful research that has revealed which drugs keep the new immune system from doing just that.  Of course, this procedure often fails despite the research, and despite the drugs, and the new immune system does exactly what it normally should do: Identify my body’s cells as foreign and attack.  This is a serious risk, not to mention the very high risk of infections that lingers for at least a year, often longer.  For me, I just flat ran out of other options, and so the choice was undergo this very risky procedure or surely die of cancer.  So, the transplant, despite the data on survival, became the logical choice.  I’m fortunate that my hospital can boast a first-year survival rate of about 90%, but the national average is nowhere near that. People die all the time of stem cell transplants.

Maybe people don’t know this, but they surely know that this procedure is not an award.   I try be tolerant of these comments; I really do.  I know most of the time, people say these things to try to be comforting to me, and usually to try to comfort themselves as well—to give themselves a sense that this horrible disease isn’t so bad after all, so that they can shield themselves from their own fear of getting cancer.  These are all human responses and perfectly understandable, but this disease is horrible, and the treatment is a last resort, and something that I very much had hoped to avoid . . . and it very well may kill me.  That’s the truth, so I don’t think congratulations are in order.

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Feeling better

April 24th, 2010

The last couple of days have been rough, and I couldn’t post.  But now it seems like the Flagyl is finally suppressing the Clostridium difficile infection.  These bacteria—like so many other organisms—can shut down most of their metabolic activity when environmental conditions are unfavorable, and while in this state, they are essentially impervious to antibiotics.  These spore forms can stretch their legs and start cranking our their toxins again once the antibiotics are out of my system, so relapse is always an issue.  I’ll be cycling on and off the Flagyl for the next few months to deal with this likelihood . . . that, and eating lots of gram-positive, “friendly” bacteria in the form of tons of yogurt.

This reminds me of a very cool group of organisms, sometimes called water bears: the tardigrades. Tardigrades are the closest relatives of the arthropods, and they haven’t changed much in a long time (the 90 million year old fossil tardigrade shown below looks essentially like modern species).

Fossil tardigrade, from Grimaldi and Engel's spectacular book, Evolution of the Insects

Tardigrades can hunker down into a spore-like condition called cryptobiosis, and in this condition they can live for centuries (yes, centuries) with no food or water.  In this state, they can survive intense radiation and even the vacuum of space.  No doubt, this ability is one reason they haven’t changed much:  If you can survive all environmental changes as you are, there won’t be much evolution going on.  Killing these guys could be nearly impossible when they’re hunkered down. So, to put in another way, as bad as C. difficile might be, I’m just glad I don’t have a colony of tardigrades up my butt (thankfully, they don’t cause disease).

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