Six years ago I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I had no symptoms at all, and no outward signs. It was found during a routine colonoscopy hiding out in my 'distal Ilium' as a small family of follicles. The diagnosis on that sunny, late-summer day was devastating. I'm a healthy guy. Lots of running and biking and keeping fit and trim in my late-50s. The oncologist told me that apart from a few cases related to environmental toxins, they have no known causes. It was not my fault because I happen to love Hostess Ho Hos. A mutation in some of the stem cells that produce the B-lymphocites caused these cells to churn out the cancerous cells, which can be identified by a particular CD-20 antigen on the surfaces of the mutated cells. This is a lucky 'hook' that modern antibody therapy can use to target and kill these cells. But as my oncologist says, all we are doing is mowing the weeds and eventually the lawn will be so full of mowed weeds that my immune system will die...followed by me. Only radiation therapy and bone marrow transplants would be able to jump start a brand new immune system for me.
My family handled the situation as best they could. I teared up many times telling my young daughters about it, but we got through it back in 2008 and I got to see both of them graduate high school and go on to college. My wife was my Rock, and endured many hours with me as I sorted things out emotionally, and finding my own way through the Five Stages of Grief.
I did the inevitable research on this particular type of NHL and turned up the aggressive forms that often can be treated and lead to remissions, and the indolent form that just drags on for years growing slowly like a smoldering match in a dry forest. That was apparently my type. There were only a limited number of studies on this type but most of us live 10 to 15 years before 'life gets busy' and we have our first train wreck requiring chemo or newer forms of targeted antibody therapy. I decided then and there not to read all the blogs by folks having the more acute form of the cancer. It was not yet my time to dwell on this, and now after 6 years of annual CT scans to monitor some proxy lymph nodes to track the disease's progress, my condition continues to be inert. All has been well and I scarcely think about my condition anymore. I never look at the Obituary pages, and apart from a few episodes of Gray's Anatomy, I never encountered the name of this particular cancer in the media or news, so I became blissfully insulated from my own condition.
Then last week, I was watching my favorite TV program on the SyFy channel: Spartacus: Blood and Sand. I happened upon this series in July and knowing the historical story of the Roman slave revolt in 72 BC, I couldn't help but be drawn into it. The last episode in Season 1 ended and I decided at long last to look up the cast of actors. There was Lucy Lawless, who I enjoyed as Xena: Warrior Princess way back in the 1990s. And then I looked up Andy Whitfield, the actor that played Spartacus. Andy died in 2011 from non-Hodgkins lymphoma - the aggressive kind. Before he passed, he used his connections and fan's financial support to create a video documentary of his last year as he went through chemo, a temporary remission, and dealt with the final bad news of his returning condition. Having bonded with the actor in his TV role, I could not help but watch his personal documentary. It was the hardest thing I have done in years, but Andy's insights, stirring words and bravery left an indelible mark on me. This is a serious disease no matter what form you have. I am not cured but living on borrowed time, and as Andy exhorted in his video, the only way to get through it is to Be Here Now and to be brave.
And with that reminder of my own mortality, I again returned to dealing with the frustration of living in a society that has all but turned its back on cancer research in the face of other more popular social and news-worthy issues. There will be 1.5 million new cases of cancer diagnosed this year, and nearly 600,000 people will die of cancer this year. Do you think that this is enough to get voters to support more cancer research? Not at all.
In an earlier blog I talked about our pathetic war on cancer. Since 2002, the National Cancer Institute budget has been capped at about $5 billion a year with no adjustment for inflation. Since then, the original $5 billion has been reduced in buying power to about $4 billion this year. Do you think the Congressmen you vote for would be in favor of increasing cancer research to some meaningful level like $8 billion or $10 billion a year? Not a chance. They will, however, find $5 billion just like that to go back to Iraq to re-fight another war. And YOU are not off the hook either as you collectively forked over $4 billion in September to upgrade to the must-have $14 billion in 2013 to take your pet to the vet!
At the NIH, they have dealt with tightening research funds by reducing the success rate of winning a grant from one chance in three to one chance in five. Also, the average age of the Principle Investigators in the winning grants has increased from about 37 in 1980 to 50 by 2006. If you are a young cancer researcher with a good idea you will not get to strike out in a new direction until you are at least 10 years beyond your PhD. The response is that the number of researchers younger than 39 has been decreasing for the last 30 years while the number of researchers older than 66 has been increasing.
Sadly, even my empassioned blog that pointed out this ridiculous underfunding issue only got 40 Likes, compared to the 303 Likes I got for a blog about the Higgs boson. I dare say you will have a greater personal experience with cancer in your lifetime than with any issue having to do with Higgs bosons!
It is one thing to have cancer, but it is quite another thing to realize you will eventually join a million other cancer fatalities knowing that your society could have done more...but willfully chose not to. I don't want your prayers. I want you to change the funding equation for cancer research by calling your Congressman and making this fight against cancer a winnable one... in my lifetime!