Posts tagged cancer

Cancer Family by Nancy Borowick. (republished with permission)

The burden of cancer does not fall upon just the individual, but also upon the family and friends who support them. It is this shared experience that is so important yet often missed in the cancer narrative. We must always consider how everyone else is surviving this diagnosis.

Nancy Borowick’s mother had been fighting breast cancer for nearly 20 years when her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They underwent treatment together for a year before he succumbed to his condition.

She sought to document the pain and the challenges they faced in this time but also their strength and their courage together, “from the daily banter they shared as husband and wife to their shifting dynamic as patient and caregiver.

"Cancer gave my family a harsh yet valuable gift: an awareness of time."

Nancy continues to document her mother’s day to day life, from the grief of losing her husband to the strength she finds through her family and friends. For instance, Nancy’s brother-in-law, Paul Flach from the UK, has also lost his father to cancer. He is running the Berlin Marathon this September as part of the UK Institute for Cancer Research fundraising team.

The Day I Started Lying to Ruth

A cancer doctor on losing his wife to cancer.

A year ago, after a busy night on call, I received a phone call from my mother. Instead of her usual self, she sounded anxious, with an urgency in her voice I seldom hear. I would learn that a close friend of hers had just been diagnosed with cancer.

"Do you know anything about it?"

As one of the mandatory components to our curriculum  I certainly knew it in broad strokes. It was this education that allowed me to deduce based on some of my mother’s description of her friend’s results and symptoms, that the prognosis was poor.

"Yes, I do."

I wrestled with myself over the phone. How much should I say? How little? Was it my place to say anything at all? But my mother was worried for her friend. Having lost my father to cancer only years ago, she wanted at least some reassurance.

Even despite my limited experiences as a student though, I knew I could not offer any. I hesitated.

Instead, I put on my suit of armour that was my white coat and spoke objectively about what the results were, what the symptoms meant, and what the doctors may offer her in the coming weeks.

"But I do not have the full picture." I cautioned. "Her doctors are there evaluating her and this is obviously their specialty." 

In a way, I was trying to wash my hands of the responsibility. I did not want the burden of knowledge that I now possessed that my mother desperately wanted. I answered her questions as best as I could. Intent not be optimistic or pessimistic.

But people always hear what they want to hear. She felt that there was still a possibility of a reversal. A recovery. A new lease on life. She just was not ready to go through everything with my father all over again. I could not muster up the strength to say anything in return.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer at the end of his days, I knew nothing about it. I was the ignorant and oblivious observer. I could still hope. I could still maintain optimism.

But now, armed with a wealth of knowledge, I fear the day when I must confront a similar situation again. When I can understand the disease, interpret results, and foresee the future. It is both a power and a curse.

Some day in the distant future, when all of my family members turn to me for guidance in those dark hours asking those questions that nobody ever wants to ask or answer - “How is he doing? Will he get better? What can we do?” - I hope I have the courage to say what is right.

Cancer patient's leg kept alive by being attached to arm

Surgeons removed a man’s tumour and rebuilt his body using leg muscles and tissue they had removed and attached to his arm to keep alive.

"It’s not easy for a surgeon to tell a patient that they haven’t done this particular procedure before."

Today in History

Fifty years ago today, Dr. Luther L. Terry, Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service, released the first report of the Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. 

The report concluded on the basis of 7,000 articles available at the time relating to smoking and disease that cigarettes were a cause for chronic bronchitis as well as lung and laryngeal cancer.


Cigares De Joy, Wilcox and Company (1881).

When I was waiting for test results I tried to make up a description in my mind of the consequences of a bad outcome; for myself and then for my wife and my children. For myself it maybe is not too bad - straight to the grave - which is where we all go; even if we think it is too early whenever it comes to that. It is awful, it is difficult to get used to that thought - if you ever are able to…it would be worst for my wife…she is the one who has to take the blow.

When I heard of going to the cancer clinic, I began shivering all over my body. As soon as I opened the door here I felt the smell of the house of death. I can still feel this smell. The word cancer is loaded with fear, I think, and I know some persons who have died of cancer. A tumor is a tumor; uncontrolled cell division, something growing and attacking inner organs.

I react severely to the cytotoxic drugs. I feel so sick, and although I get other drugs to subdue the vomiting, the sick feeling is there, rocking my body all the way. I feel as if I am being run over by a steamroller - my whole body is reacting.

I remember when I woke up from the operation the surgeon told me they had found “islands of outgrowths” in the peritoneum, which was negative news. Something strange happened to me; all anaesthetics and all drugs disappeared from my body, my brain become crystal- clear and I thought: “How can I tell this to my wife?

An excerpt from Expressive Metaphors in Cancer Narratives by Carola Skott, PhD RN.

Superformula to Fight Cancer.

This is a very heartwarming idea. In a bid to give children afflicted with cancer hope and inspiration, the designers at JWT Brazil have created “super formula” cases for their chemotherapy regimens. These formulas come with a video vignette, showing the superheroes affected similarly, and getting stronger when they take their very own super formulas.

If this can give a child the strength the carry on, or even bring a smile to their face, then these cases have done their job.

I Do Not Fear Death by Roger Ebert

"I will pass away sooner than most people who read this, but that doesn’t shake my sense of wonder and joy."

The essay is from Roger Ebert’s Life Itself: A Memoir and was published to Salon as a memorial of sorts for a recently deceased critic and friend. It is a beautifully written essay about that final threshold to which we all find at the end of our days.

A Girl Dying from Leukaemia Saved Using Altered T-Cells

Now this is very impressive.

Last summer, Emma, then six was near death from chemo-resistant leukaemia but is now in remission thanks to an experimental cancer treatment method developed by the University of Pennsylvania.

Doctors remove millions of Emma’s T-cells, and inserted new genes that enabled them to combat cancer cells. The kicker is that it involved using disabled HIV virions to deliver the genetic material. HIV particles are excellent genetic vectors and already have specificity towards T-cells. The new genes program the T-cells to attack B-cells.

The treatment very nearly killed her but she has emerged cancer free and still in complete remission.

This is very exciting stuff but make no mistake this is no end-all-be-all. Emma might have done extremely well with her treatment but the experiment has had its share of mixed results. Despite this, the researchers involved and the experts of the field think this approach has tremendous promise.

Life, Interrupted: Five Days of Chemo

"Every month, I go to the hospital to receive outpatient chemotherapy injections for five days in a row. My doctors say this will be my routine for the next year."

I remember when my father underwent chemotherapy. “Experimental combination,” the oncologist would say. The cancer was aggressive and advanced. A standard treatment protocol was out of consideration. There was not much they could do about his mets, but they were hopeful that chemo would prolong his life beyond the months they could foresee. 

Sadly, that never came to pass, but what did pass was the terrible after effects of chemotherapy. My father was a strong man, and even in his last days following chemo, the misery of it was plainly obvious. It is such a strange and horrible dilemma to suffer at the hands of either cancer unchecked or of the potent and toxic chemo.

To not have undergone chemo would have most likely made his last days easier, but then again, at that point, we were willing to take any chance.

Follow the link to read the first person account of Suleika Jaouad as she writes about her experiences as a young adult with cancer in the series: Life, Interrupted.

Jake Bouma meets with his oncologist on June 22, 2012, after four rounds of chemotherapy to treat his Hodgkin Lymphoma.

This clip is part of a documentary Nathan Matta is creating on his journey, “Let’s Do This: Facing Hodgkin Lymphoma.”

When I feel lost on my journey, when the challenges seem insurmountable, moments like these remind me again why I am here and why I have chosen medicine. More than that, it pushes me to continue onward.