I have two things to share in this post. One is an op-ed I wrote after having an epiphany about cancer: that it's not forever, not incurable, not the monster that will forever rule our fears. A cure is coming, so long as we can fund innovation.
Speaking of innovation, I'm delighted to share a video by the Kranz family, explaining about their nonprofit Unravel, founded in memory of their daughter to keep other families from going through that incredible tragedy. Let's watch that first.
There is progress coming; there is. Here is my piece that originally ran at the wonderful, big-hearted blog Sweatpants & Coffee.
Handing Cancer its Termination Notice
by Erika Mailman
Cancer's never going away, is it? It's the Grim Reaper large as Godzilla, with not one but two scythes, and really sharp incisors inside that skeletal jaw.
For many years—since I watched a friend in her early forties twist and moan in the pain of cervical cancer until it won—I’d considered cancer the beast that was omnipotent, and all we could do was bow our heads and hope it passed by those we cared about.
But recently I’ve been buoyed up by optimism. I foresee an end to cancer. I’m taking a lesson from history and am officially and ironically handing cancer its termination notice.
What spurs this confidence? Let me backtrack.
I teach English at a community college in Sacramento. In a chapter of our textbook titled "Homonyms and Commonly Confused Words," I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. Basically, as my students and I understood it, sympathy involves a mild feeling of distress, while empathy entails actually crying.
I spent a lot of time being empathetic in 2014. I capped off each night by looking at the blog written by Libby Kranz about her daughter's breathtakingly-quick—less than four months—decline and death from a tumor in her brainstem. Jennifer Kranz was six; the one-year anniversary of her death is next week, Feb. 12.
She and my daughter were in the same playgroup of a mom's group in Gilroy, California, and thus the news hit home in a way nothing else ever has. I sank to my knees night after night, not just crying, but sobbing, hyperventilating, in rockgut despair for my friend's loss.
Each morning I showered away the ravages of the previous evening’s grief, and met my students with a smile. Along with the grammar text, I assigned them a novel, Year of Wonders by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. This book is about the Bubonic Plague and is set in medieval Eyam, England, a village remarkable for the fact its residents quarantined themselves to avoid spreading the plague. They were sympathetic (if not empathetic) to the imagined plight of neighboring villages should they bring the "plague seeds" with them as they fled.
The Black Death, as the Bubonic Plague was called, swept over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, a pandemic that lasted for hundreds of years (mainly 1300s-1600s). Statistics vary, but it is said that a full third of the Middle East and Europe's population died from the plague.
Brooks's novel describes the buboes (dark, swollen lymph nodes from which "bubonic" derives) that would appear in people's groins, armpits, necks: the first sign of a fast ride to death that would involve high fever, vomiting of blood, and coagulating blood in fingers and toes, leaving them gothically, repugnantly blackened as if by fire. Deaths were so rampant that soon mass burials took place so corpses could be speedily dispatched; periodically, modern-day construction crews come across these pits.
Since the medieval world was awash in fleas (puce--French for "flea"--was a favorite clothing color at Versailles, to provide camouflage for the ubiquitous pest) and fleas carried the plague from rodent to human with their bites, the disease spread with alarming rapidity. Fleas famously can leap over a foot away and can continue living in bedding and clothing (in Brooks's novel, a tailor's shipment of cloth from London is to blame for the plague reaching Eyam), so short of completely contaminating a home, there would be no way to stop the miniature agents of disease--even if it had been known they were responsible.
The Black Death inspired terror for hundreds of years--now imagine telling someone in the 1300s that a simple vaccine would make mention of the plague shrug-worthy. And that even once contracted, the disease could be stopped by antibiotics if caught early on. They might not have been able to believe it. Plague had been too terrible, too sweeping, too much part of their lives.
And that's how we think about cancer.
We've spent decades feeling helpless about cancer's wretched march through the cells of those we love. Words like "metastasized" and "stage four" bring dread to our stomachs; these are words we have no armor for. When we hear about "the cure," there's a certain incredulity that there ever will be one. Cancer is so powerful. But I'm heartened by the analogy that we can eradicate cancer like we did the plague.
There will be a breakthrough. Today, for the most part, only third world countries suffer plague outbreaks, like Madagascar very recently. I'm honestly not concerned about buboes; they don't come up on my maternal radar too much, although 600 years ago my English ancestors probably worried about them constantly, with good reason.
I’m picturing the near future, a day when people marvel that cancer ran so long unchecked…when they pity us for our “Dark Ages” disease. That day is coming. Cancer researchers make strides daily, like Dr. Olson, who has developed “tumor paint” to make it easier for surgeons to excise diseased tissue while leaving good tissue intact, as well as working on anti-cancer compounds, optides. These optides improve the wretched process of chemotherapy which targets healthy and cancerous cells alike—the optides only attack the bad cells.
Jennifer Kranz’s parents have squeezed metaphoric lemons in desperation and grief to pummel them into pulp and lemonade. Their nonprofit organization Unravel promises to “unravel” pediatric cancer through fundraising to support researchers who are eager and innovative and only lack funding. Unravel monies recently permitted Dr. Olsen to hire not one but two interns. Being part of such a tangible step forward towards a cure makes me sleep better at night, although my eyes still burn with empathetic tears when I think about Jennifer, forever lost.
To read Libby's blog or to contribute to Unravel, her pediatric cancer awareness and fundraising nonprofit, visit http://unravelpediatriccancer.org.