Thursday, December 20, 2012

Terrorism and Cancer

I've been toying with the idea for this post all week. The idea came to me as I was leaving the T station on Monday. Usually I write a post in the morning and publish it that day. For some reason, I've been hesitant with this one. But here it is nonetheless...

It's easy to say we live in a dangerous world.

From there, it's almost as easy to say that we need to remove all those dangers from our lives as if we're childproofing our house from newly ambulatory infants; that we need to refrain from activities (air travel, movies, shopping malls, school) that create that danger. That, ultimately, would leave us living in a bubble, if we could invent one, or under our bed (although as fans of Calvin and Hobbes will remember, that's where the monsters live at night.)


Last week's act of terror in Newtown made me think of the daily risks I go through. Here's my typical routine. I drive in the dark and often weather-impaired conditions along a five-mile stretch of road populated with makeshift memorials at the site of past accidents. That leads me to the highway into Providence. (There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 motor vehicle deaths each year in the U.S.)

I get on an Amtrak train headed into Boston, walking past the Amtrak police, the Providence police, and often a bomb-sniffing dog. Amtrak trains have not been the scene of any terrorist actions to date, but derailments aren't foreign to US train travel.

Once in Boston, I either bike through Boston streets (enough said) or now that it's cold, take the T (the Boston subway) which locks a couple hundred people inside a moving electrified trolley. As you enter or leave the crowded stations, emergency evacuation signs are among the largest ads you see. More often, I'm most concerned about the smells and germs circulating around me and less about derailments or acts of terror.

I try not to breathe too much.

Then I walk a half-mile to work, where, in an unsecured building, I spend nine or so hours, with a couple hundred people, including researchers, IT folks and fellow communicators. There are some great people in all those departments, and a lot of folks who I don't know -- and at least two of those professions attract at least a few individuals who seem to prefer technology and science to people. 

I then turn around and repeat the process to go home.

If I spent too much time thinking about the risks, I'd calculate them to be a lot higher than they really are and I might never get out of bed.

So what's that got to do with cancer?

There's a song by one of my favorite artists. It's called "(Everything Will Give You) Cancer" by Joe Jackson (the video is below as well). The chorus goes like this: Everything. Everything will give you cancer. There's no cure. There's no answer. Everything will give you cancer. 
It's an old, sarcastic little song, maybe 25 years old and he's got a point. If you started making a list of things that might be linked to some forms of cancer, you'd have a list that unfolded over many pages -- and included on it, would be things like, alcohol, a high-carb diet, tobacco, and oh, the sun. 

For 48 years, I carried on mostly oblivious to any risky behavior I engaged in. Did any of that fuel my cancer? Who knows? Did all those delicious cold cuts I ate - piled high, Dagwood style on fresh-baked Italian bread lay the seeds of my lymphoma?  Did shots of Jack Daniels start the process of the DNA mutations that led to my swollen lymph nodes twenty years later? Doubtful. I have a hard time believing that anything I did was in excess enough to be related.

Sure, I'm more careful about what I eat and drink these days. I try to eat more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, less processed foods, less sugar-fueled snacks. But that doesn't mean I won't have a drink with friends and not  think twice about whether that's dangerous. If I stressed over every bite I ate; worried about each time I had a cookie or a bowl of ice cream, I'd probably subsist on bread and water. There's some interesting research that is examining chemo brain - the real and quantifiable changes in brain activity that some patients experience -- and its relation not to the chemo drugs themselves, but to the stress of the diagnosis.     

As with the threat of terrorism, the threat of cancer can hang over our head like a weighty, oppressive cloud, forcing us into a fetal position. Or we can accept the risk inherent in living, take a deep breath and process the risk as awareness, even alertness, but not anxiety. 

The tragedy in Connecticut filled me with sadness. The more I think about it -- its proximity in so many ways to the life we lead in Barrington -- the easier it becomes to overflow with that sadness. The same can be true with my cancer diagnosis. 

I read a story about talking to your kids about the tragedy which had this bit of advice: This may have been an act of evil but it's one event in an otherwise good world. It's what I believe. If I'm going to continue my optimistic  view of the world, it's what I have to believe.

--Michael

 Here's one of a few options for (Everything Will Give you) Cancer on YouTube.