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Sunday, April 27, 2014

The C of Heartbreak

Yes, it's also a song, sung by lots of people.

1. Cancer vs Friend

I’ve been lucky. Cancer has barely crossed my path in 40 years alive.  There’s never been much cancer in my family (none, actually, that I can think of), and growing up, most cancer news breezed by. The only story I can even think of is of this screwball woman who used to help my mom with farm work and claimed several times to have cancer. As far as we could tell, she just said that when she didn’t want to work. Then she would go back to stripping for a while, and then she would do some farm work again. She never lost any hair, never lost weight, never seemed sick. Either she had the easiest of all cancers to cope with, or she was full of shit. I’m sure at some point, my family of mostly smartasses reduced her hoaxy cancer to a joke. “She didn’t show up today? Probably got cancer again.”

Maybe that was example #1 in the realm of “Cancer brings out the worst in people.” Another example would be Steve, a college roommate, always invoking the concept of “dick cancer.” Sometimes he was gonna get it; other times he was condemning someone else to getting it. Does dick cancer even exist? Lance Armstrong had testicular cancer, and I suppose skin cancer could pop up on a penis, but I’ve never heard of “dick cancer” per se actually being a thing. Possibly just another of Steve’s obsessions. To steal another guy’s phrase, “Your dick’s too short to fuck with cancer.”

Other manifestations of cancer over the years still tended toward affecting folks at some distance from me, often people who smoked or featured this or that unhealthy characteristic. Although I’ve always known that no one is exempt, I think I became guilty of the presumably universal hubris of thinking cancer was not in my cards. We’re all gamblers in this sense—problems are abstract until they are yours, or at least a friend’s. That makes sense, since a person only has time for a short list of shit in life. I mean, wouldn’t it be weird if Michael J. Fox had dedicated himself to finding a Parkinson’s cure long before getting the disease?

Well, the run of good luck ran down, as it must with age. Several years ago, cancer killed my mom’s long-time friend, Sheila. Then it almost got my friend’s wife, Stacy, who lets me read demented stories to her 4th graders. A few years later, my grade-school buddy’s dad went down. Still pretty lucky, none in my immediate family… oops, then my mother-in-law got a bit of melanoma. Getting closer to home, but still for some reason, not threatening to me directly. There’s always a reason why it ain’t me: he’s much older than I am, she’s got family history, etc.

The point being, maybe I have a hearty dose of mortality denial, or at least a touch of dickheaded noncompliance about getting onboard the Good Ship “We’re All in this Together.” Maybe it’s a healthy hubris: if we each ran around in true empathy for the deaths of our fellow folks, we’d die a thousand sympathetic deaths and likely never accomplish anything, favoring worry, holding back the doom. But still, jerk-ass soul contents.

So, if I were a more superstitious person, more inclined to see cosmic targets on my back, I might think the cancer dice have been loading themselves the past 40 years for a big hit in my vicinity, because the friend now afflicted is certainly an unlikely choice. Aaron has always been a bit of a superman, or at least solidly outside the main columns in that ledger where we tick off the carcinogenic odds: strong guy, smart guy, clean livin’, upstanding citizen, not a prick, not a cosmic target in either the obvious way (no Evel Kneivel stuff) or the ironic way (no pumping of wheat-grass colonic smoothies from yoga positions). Mr. Solid. Mr. 435 lbs Bench Press. Mr. Reads the Books I Should Be Reading. But also not pompous. Good for jokes, pranks, foolishness. Mr. Biology Degree who hoarsely reports on the state of his organs with informed medical clarity just moments before laughing when my two-year-old quietly delivers the line, “Chickenbutt… boogernose.”

As I told him right after the bad news was delivered, “I think we all run our mortality through little scenarios, but they don’t take on much weight until you consider your kids.” At least, that’s what I think now that I’m a dad. I know it goes double for Aaron, who not only has two girls, but is the only guy I know who has always (well, since having kids) been vocally pro-fatherhood. That’s not to say he’s the only good dad around; he’s just been the opposite of the predictably dissatisfied American stereotype dad). So this paragraph’s thesis is, Should Aaron be taken by cancer, he will be sorely missed—not only by dreary old adults, but by kids who aren’t even halfway done knowing how Mr. King Dad he is.

Part 2: The Great Debates, or, When the Cure is More Disease

Tragedy strikes, and people always have to ask Why? Why us? Who did this? How can we fix it? It’s right to question, but only useful if you ask the right questions.

The “Shit Happens” theory covers much of it. Most of these questions hit the fan a couple years ago when my daughter came on the scene with her guts unpacked. The WHYs lead mostly into the cosmic maze where televangelists point fingers at hurricanes, earthquakes, and gay people. Does application of a vengeful God to irrational existential fear actually fix anything? Anyone who answers ‘Yes’ has my groans of weary exasperation, and adds to my theory that maybe people should not learn religious thinking as children for risk of having a Sunday-school worldview “that gets stuck that way.” I mean, if gods have been throwing lightning bolts, floods, and tumors for millennia, why hasn’t their aim improved any? I tend to look at things the opposite way: we all swim in a stew of bacteria, radiation, and chemical runoff on our best days. Maybe we’re all damn lucky everything works as well as it does.

“Who did this?” is a great question if you’re Erin Brockovich or your well was poisoned by big coal, or if you live in the Marvel Universe or a CSI episode, but most of the time, forget about finding the answer. I had to wonder if my daughter’s liver fell out because I handled the wrong pesticide or solvent, but the doctors gave us “no known risk factors” to choose from. Aaron’s esophageal cancer resulted, almost undoubtedly, from airborne crud ingested during 10+ years as a firefighter, but even so, there’s no tracing it. There’s no ballistics test for sabotage on the cellular level.

“How can we fix it?” would seem to be the key question. Easier asked than answered. Unfortunately, whole schools of Cancer Lore have sprouted up in the garden of doubt surrounding medical science’s failure to find a cure. It’s made worse by the brutality of the treatments: your best chance is in chemo, surgery, and radiation—three things guaranteed to make you feel awful for what may be your last days. It’s no wonder so many people reach outside the mainstream for some other cure, or at least hope. “Cancer Centers of America” comes to mind, with its long-running commercial starring Peggy, the woman whose regular doctor told her to “Go to the store” (Whatever the hell that meant). She even showed up in a sequel, riding a horse, which of course means she went to Heaven. But if you squint at those Peggy commercials, somewhere are the tiny words, “results not typical.” Plus, the sheer number of times I saw that on TV either means I am in prime cancer demographic, or that Cancer Centers is making a porky profit on desperate sick people.

Then there is prayer, which in my opinion is equivalent to speaking into a disconnected phone, but at least it’s free (as long as you’re not sending any “love gifts” to Pat Billy Jack), and it helps one gather one’s thoughts. Plus, there’s always that outside chance of activating some sort of subtle brain-centered healing razzmatazz.

Then comes the rising tide of alternative medicine. Good fuckin’ luck. On one hand, there’s my brother, ambassador from the world of marijuana miracles and herbal cure-alls. When I mentioned Aaron’s cancer, he automatically rattled off several cures that sounded hot from the voodoo store: “black waggo root” or something… maybe I would know it as the weed, Kingsfoil, Mr Frodo! I know I’m a jerk for making fun of stuff I know nothing about, but my line of reasoning goes like this: Even if Big Pharma were suppressing nature’s cures, there are plenty of doctors out there who have gotten cancer, or watched a loved one die of it. If there was a leaf or root that really mattered, doctors would know about it, or at least Chinese herbalists would. And if such natural cures begin to gather your confidence, along comes the counter-testimonial, via Marcus Howell: “My friend’s wife had cancer. She tried all that stuff—everything BUT chemotherapy. Her husband begged her to do chemo. Dead in six months!” —Dwayne Crigger  For me, that one anecdote is enough to make all the natural cures sound anecdotal.

The web, guaranteed, is loaded with rich arguments from every angle on the topic of Cancer. I’m not even gonna wade in. I spent an hour one night just scratching the surface of the question: “Should a long-haired dog be shaved in hot weather?” I don’t even have a dog, but I THINK I learned a lot about shaving one.

Life-threatening illness may be the ultimate wake-up call. It's just a Brutality Bonus that it tempts people to burn big hunks of their precious little time chasing wild medicinal geese. Maybe that's why Peggy's doctor just told her to go to the store.

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