Wednesday, September 4, 2013

F&*k cancer

So today I took a friend to chemo. She has an aggressive case of breast cancer and has to spend hours at a stretch sitting in the hospital while bags of medicinal cocktails are pumped into her. Said mixtures include not just the cancer-fighting treatments but also anti-nausea meds and anti-inflammatories and all sorts of stuff, so having someone take her to her appointment serves two purposes for my friend: it gives her someone to talk to to pass the time a little more pleasantly, and it gives her someone to drive her home when she’s feeling a little bit loopy in the wake of all the substances doing their thing in her system. I’ve been friends with this woman since freshman year of college (twenty years, people) so when she was about to start her course of chemo and volunteers were needed, I had no problem signing myself up. It seemed like the very, very least I could do. I honestly wish I could do more.

(The panels above are from a mini-series entitled Squadron Supreme - feel free to click to supreme-size! It's one of my personal faves; it's been on my mind lately and I will have more to say about it at a later date. For now, the coincidental subject matter was enough to bring it up here.*)

I’ve written before, with what I admit was probably condescending levels of amusement, about my wife’s tendency for magical thinking, e.g. the avian spirit animals watching over our children. But as is often the case in this crazy mixed-up human condition, the things I make fun of in others are of course the things which I recognize and regard uncomfortably in myself. I am totally guilty of my own streak of magical thinking, and it is both wide and deep. I simultaneously acknowledge that we all live in a real, rational universe and yearn for there to exist a hidden world just beneath the surface, one in which basically all things are possible. These two attitudes can’t entirely coexist, and if absolutely pressed to break in favor of one or the other, I will do so (begrudgingly) in the direction of understandable scientific phenomena. But rarely am I under such duress, and in general magical thinking is a hard habit to shake.

When I found out about my friend’s cancer diagnosis I was glad to also hear that she was committed to following the doctor’s orders for a full-on, no-holds-barred treatment plan. (Momentary sidenote acknowledging that my friend is of course extremely lucky to be well-off enough that she has excellent insurance to pay for aforementioned treatment, not to mention an accommodating white collar job that allows her to remain employed while devoting a not insignificant amount of time to the treatment.) And I offered her any help she could possibly think to ask for, because that is a fundamental no-brainer when someone you care about is met by some kind of personal crisis. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I wouldn’t actually be able to do anything about the disease inside her per se; the doctors are the ones responsible for taking direct and literal aim at the tumors, and either their methods will work or they won’t, and my friend will beat this or … clearly I don’t really want to think about the other side of that.

And yet, when my work schedule and her chemo schedule finally aligned and I was able to lend my own efforts to the overall cause, I felt that it was somehow important to do so in its own right. Partly because I wanted to see for myself that my friend was fighting for her life, to give “she has cancer” some counterweight in my mental landscape along the lines of “she’s doing everything she can!” And, I admit, somewhere in the fuzzy overlap between imperfectly understood neuroscience and unadulterated fairy-dust-and-moonbeams, there’s a part of me that believes that wanting to get better is a crucial part of actually getting better, that our bodies heal from maladies when we have that elusive positive attitude radiating from our hearts. So I’m happy to say that I saw no signs of my friend despairing or giving up. It’s not easy, and she’s not happy about it (she’s particularly bitter about the fact that she’s always the youngest person in there getting treatments, as all the other chemo patients got cancer in their 50’s or 60’s or something). But she’s being brave, for what it’s worth. I don’t know that bravery in and of itself can slow the division of even a single malignant cell, but if it can, at least she’s not backing down.

And on yet another level, I admit that I just want to will my friend back to health. I want this not to be happening to her. And I don’t want to find myself years from now missing her and berating myself that I should have done more, and even as insanely illogical as that line of thinking would be , I know I’d be highly susceptible to it. If I had never taken her to a single chemo session and the chemo (gods forbid) ended up not working, I’d feel somehow responsible. Which makes zero sense unless you are actually living in a magical world full of anima that respond to emotional vibrations and intentions. But even though I’m all but positive that we are not inhabiting such a fantasyland, I feel utterly compelled to lend my own spiritual energies to the struggle.

I don’t know, I suppose magical thinking in concert with all appropriate measures based on observable science is harmless enough. Maybe there’s an arrogance to our elevation of Pure Reason, maybe there are supernatural mysteries we dismiss unfairly, and maybe it couldn’t hurt and in fact could only help to cover all the bases, just to be on the safe side. I really and truly hope that in a few more years my friend will be cancer-free and I can look back on this low-point interlude with nothing but relief that it came and went. And I’m sure that point I’ll still give the lion’s share of the credit for my friend’s survival to medical science and miracles of the purely technological variety. But there may also be some quiet appreciation for the invisible and unexplained that may or may not have played a part.

(* A little more background about the comic sampled above: the blond is a hero named Nuke, who has radioactive blast powers, while the graybeard is Tom Thumb, little person with super-genius intellect. Nuke is asking Tom to cure cancer because both of Nuke's parents are dying of it. And Nuke feels guilty because he himself is slightly radioactive and he's convinced he gave his parents cancer. At the very least I feel like I should acknowledge that I'm not suffering from that kind of magical thinking, like if I had been a more attentive human being my friend would never have been stricken. So that's something.)

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