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Archive for November 11th, 2014

Trying to catch a killer

As a planet, we are engaged in so many wars, it’s a wonder we have time to think about anything else. The Boy Scouts are coming around soon to collect non-perishables for the local food pantry – helping to fight the war on poverty. Hardly a day goes by that the mail doesn’t include a letter asking for donations to help win the war against heart disease, muscle disease, childhood cancer, adult cancer, cancer research, or some other plea to “help win the fight against…” Oh, yeah, we’re also fighting wars against Ebola in West Africa, crazy people in Somalia, and a group of religious zealots in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq.

If you stop to think about it, our lives are consumed by wars and fighting. “I fight the traffic everyday of the week.” Right, you’ve heard people say that, haven’t you? Or, “I fought my way through the store;” generally a Black Friday story or at one of Macy’s one-day sales…speaking of which, how can one store have so many one-day sales?

So, you see, we’re engaged in mortal combat against disease, social inequities, as well as outright crazies with whom it’s kill or be killed. If there is a Higher Power, and I certainly believe there is, He, She, or It must be looking at mankind and muttering, “They may talk about peace on earth, but they sure don’t seem to know how to go about achieving it!”

Of course there are good fights versus bad fights; I think we can all agree on that. The question is, “Are we winning,” and the answer is “Yeah, on many fronts, we are proving that we can win.” We’ve made remarkable advances in the treatment of heart disease, for example. Yes, it’s still this nation’s number one killer, but it appears that more and more people are surviving because of the research and new methods of treatment. The fight against cancer is one where I have taken up the figurative cudgel and fought on a pretty regular basis.

Cancer…Growing up, it was just another word, and one that I rarely heard. Throughout elementary, junior high, and high school, I’m willing to bet that I never even heard that word. Friends of my parents got sick and died, and today, I’m certain they were taken by cancer…but that word was never used. I lost a couple of friends but those were auto crashes and polio. Cancer found its way into my vocabulary a bit later when Helen White, the secretary in our department (they weren’t call personal assistants back in those days) went on sick leave. It was only after her death that I learned her killer was breast cancer. In retrospect, even that didn’t make me become a draftee in the war on cancer. When Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, I certainly paid more attention and learned more about the disease. Lung cancer had no cure; basically, if you received a cancer diagnosis back then, you had just received a death sentence. Today, while still the number two killer, cancer mortality rates, particularly among children, are showing signs of decreasing.

Recently, I received an appeal from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and yes, I will probably send them a contribution. That’s not important. What was truly gratifying were the statistics showing how survival rates are increasing for certain types of cancer. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 1982 had a 96 percent fatality rating within five years. Today, the five-year survival rate is 94 percent. Osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, has gone from a 20 percent survival rate to 70 percent. A friend of mine and the person responsible for getting me truly involved in this fight, died of Ewing sarcoma, another type of bone cancer. Leslie was 32 when she died, but she crammed a lifetime into those years.  Back when she died, the survival rate for Ewing sarcoma was about five percent; today, the five-year survival rate is 65 percent.

Are we going to win the war on cancer? No, probably we will not. We will win battles; some of them will be decisive battles where we can say definitively, “Yes, we have won the fight against this type of cancer.” However, cancer, just like the religious zealots, mutates and comes back in different forms, immune to the weapons that killed it only years before. There are a number of parallels that can be drawn between cancer and Al Qaeda or ISIS or ISL or whatever initials are being used this week by people whose sole joy appears to be in killing those who will not submit to their will. The figures are all over the place regarding how much has been spent on cancer research and finding cures for one kind of cancer or another just as they are varied for how much we are spending in our shooting wars. However, we cannot blame the scientists and doctors for not coming up with a silver bullet just as we cannot blame the individual soldier, unit, or even the planners for the mire in which we find ourselves. Much of the fault lies with the individual at home. Early detection is the key. Mammograms, chest x-rays, colonoscopies, and a variety of other examinations are available to each one of us. It’s our responsibility to take advantage of those tests.

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