I appreciate the positive feedback my blog has received, and all the people who are rooting and praying for a quick recovery. In terms of good writing on cancer, I bow to a master writer, Christopher Hitchens, who published a series of “dispatches from tumorville” which are both brilliant and difficult for me to read. I encourage you to read them. Especially difficult for me is his description of the day he was hospitalized and was diagnosed with cancer, which is not substantially different from “the worst day EVER“. I am breaking my own rule here about avoiding even oblique references to death (Hitch lost his battle), but Hitchens’ diagnosis was much worse than mine: grade IV esophageal cancer with multiple metastases, and a relatively old age and counter-productive lifestyle – doesn’t get much worse than that. I was struck by one thing he wrote:
“I don’t have a body; I am a body.”
This is the sort of thing that I can’t argue with in any specific way: it’s axiomatic that, without the body, the mind can’t exist. That being said, I am certainly more than 200 pounds of flesh. I am the sum of everything I’ve written, discovered, and created; all of the students I’ve taught and mentored; all of the people I’ve loved and who have loved me back. This is a point I make in my dedication to Jing.
Doublethink is a concept developed by another phlegmatic Englishman I admire, George Orwell, in his classic, 1984. Doublethink gets a bad reputation based on its central role in underlying of the dystopian, totalitarian state Orwell describes. But doublethink has some virtues with respect to cancer. From my example described above: I can believe that my body is the essential part of me, and every effort must be made to preserve it (i.e. all of my strength), while simultaneously believing that the value of my existence goes well beyond corporal things.
As part of our effort to leave no stone un-turned in this fight against cancer, Jing and I are reading loads of papers on gliomas, immunotherapy, cancer genetics. Reading these papers is demoralizing, because they often describe grim survival curves and awful outcomes in cold, disinterested, clinical terms. Jing and I recoil a bit from these statistics, like Han Solo recoils from anyone telling him the odds. But at the same time, these data are the best resource we have for evaluating the wisdom and likelihood of success of different therapeutic options. Hence, another role for doublethink: I’m going to read and internalize these cancer genetics papers, whilst simultaneously refusing to believe their statistics apply to me. There is some support for this position: in my case, I’m 35, below the average age of patients in many of these studies, with the mighty resources of WashU protecting my citadel. Also, I’d like to think that positive expectations and a disciplined mind can turn the balance in my favor – likewise, an unshakable belief that I am needed. In any case, the key is to read and use the cancer papers in the literature without getting worn down by them.