The “C” Word

In 1953 a doctor by the name of Jonas Stalk announced a vaccine that would eliminate polio altogether. It took a while but since 1979 there have been no new cases of polio in the US. Worldwide cases have also dropped, by 99%, since the vaccine was first introduced.

Some years later, in July 1969, the United States became the first country to put a man on the moon. An extraordinary feat when you consider this beautiful mass of rock is over 230,000 miles from Earth.

Today we can put an entire library of books on a computer chip the size of a human fingernail, access this information with a device that fits in the palm of our hand, and carry it with us in a car that very soon we won’t even have to drive; all testaments to the incredible power of the human mind and our relentless pursuit of answers.

Yet despite all of our accomplishments, there’s still much work to be done. This year alone it’s estimated that 1.8M people will be diagnosed with cancer and over 600K will die from the disease. This is in no way acceptable, especially considering the immense resources and brainpower currently being deployed in an effort to prevent, treat and ultimately rid ourselves of this awful disease.

When my mom was going through treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, she was sent to what is considered a leader in cancer treatment, The Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

My reaction when first visiting their sprawling campus wasn’t what I expected. While I’m sure they’re conducting ground breaking research and saving some lives in the process, the facility is basically a human production line with very sick patients as the product. These “products” are rolled, shuffled and escorted from one line to another, given a stack of papers, and then pointed to their next destination.

Conversations here are short and to the point, more informative and mechanical than empathetic and passionate. Looking around you quickly realize that these people have seen a million faces just like yours and your loved ones and in the process many have essentially become detached and numb to the toll the disease is having on the patient and their families. To them, I’m afraid, it’s just business, another day at the office.

I wish I could say the experience we had with the highly paid and highly respected cancer specialists was better but the same approach and mindset permeates the entire facility: A rushed 5 minute speech on, “what’s next” and the “plan of attack”, with a half-hearted attempt to dummy it all down from highly scientific and biological terms to laymen’s terms.

The message though is usually along the lines of, “we’re going to inject you with poison, this poison will annihilate not only the cancer cells in your body, at least we hope, but a significant number of healthy cells as well, and then…we’ll see what the results are later.”

Between now and “later” the patient loses their hair, pukes, shits, feels their skin burn, gets painful blisters and sores in their mouths, loses even more weight and energy, and feels like they would rather die than go through such a primal and outdated treatment ever again. Finally, once the treatment is complete, they simply hope for the best.

After you leave the facility you’ll almost always have more questions than answers. But in business, time is of the essence. There are quotas to be met, dozens if not hundreds more patients waiting right behind you, just as anxious, just as scared, just as sick.

Every one of us has been touched by cancer either directly or indirectly. We’ve known some who have survived but far too many who have not. Despite all the highly public touting of breakthroughs and advancements in treatment, more often than not used as pure promotion for whoever’s doing the touting, we are failing on a grand scale.

The cynical side of me realizes cancer is big business and big money for hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, specialists, and the entire infrastructure that makes up cancer treatment. Just at this one facility in St. Louis there are construction cranes everywhere you look, building and expanding an already massive campus, all driven entirely by cancer and the dollars it generates.

I think it’s fair to call BS on the promises and the research and the self-promoting facilities and researchers who seem more concerned about getting their names in articles and research papers than actually finding a real solution to the worse disease of our time. Many of these advancements will hit roadblocks of their own that you’ll likely never hear about. And then the once promising breakthrough will slowly fade away like so many others before it.

Despite it all, the machine keeps churning; another day, another patient, another victim. Let me make clear that I do appreciate the efforts of so many in the field of cancer care and cancer research. Over the 2 plus years my mom battled cancer, before finally losing the fight in 2016, we met many truly amazing people, from nurses to technicians and especially other patients.

I realize there are many who are desperately looking for a cure and show up every day to serve those who are in need of just a little compassion. But my fear is there are far more who are concerned about keeping the status quo and serving their own interests. So my view has become and will remain, “don’t tell me about your promising research or your supposed breakthroughs because I don’t really care. When you put that promise into action and I see real, measurable, and significant results, then we can talk.”


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