Written by Erika Mailman
Cancer’s never going away, is it? It’s the Grim Reaper large as Godzilla, with not one but two scythes, and sharp incisors inside that skeletal jaw.
For many years—since I watched a friend in her early forties twist and moan in the pain of cervical cancer until it won—I’d considered cancer the omnipotent beast, and all we could do was bow our heads and hope it passed by those we cared about.
But recently I’ve been buoyed up by optimism. I foresee an end to cancer. I’m taking a lesson from history and am ironically handing cancer its termination notice.
What spurs this confidence?
Last year I capped off each night by looking at the blog written by Libby Kranz about her daughter’s breathtakingly-quick—less than four months—decline and death from a tumor in her brainstem. Jennifer Kranz was six; the one-year anniversary of her death is today, Feb. 12.
She and my daughter were in the same playgroup of a mom’s group in Gilroy, California, and thus the news hit home in a way nothing else ever has. I sank to my knees night after night, sobbing, hyperventilating, in rockgut despair.
Each morning I showered away the ravages of the previous evening’s grief, and met my community college students with a smile. I teach English, and I assigned the novel Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. This book is about the bubonic plague and is set in Eyam, England, a village remarkable for the fact its residents quarantined themselves to avoid spreading the plague.
The Black Death swept over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, a pandemic that lasted hundreds of years (mainly 1300s-1600s). Statistics vary, but it is said that a full third of the Middle East and Europe’s population died.
Brooks’s novel describes the buboes (dark, swollen lymph nodes from which “bubonic” derives) that would appear in groins, armpits, necks: the first sign of a fast ride to death that would involve high fever, vomiting of blood, and coagulating blood in fingers and toes, leaving them gothically, repugnantly blackened as if by fire. Deaths were so rampant that soon mass burials took place; periodically, modern-day construction crews come across these pits.
The Black Death inspired terror for hundreds of years–now imagine telling someone in the 1300s that a simple vaccine would make the plague shrug-worthy.
And that even once contracted, the disease could be stopped by antibiotics if caught early on.
They might not have been able to believe it. Plague had been too terrible, too sweeping, too much part of their lives.
And that’s how we think about cancer.
We’ve spent decades feeling helpless about cancer’s wretched march through the cells of those we love. Words like “metastasized” and “stage four” bring dread to our stomachs; they’re words we have no armor for. The phrase “the cure” elicits certain incredulity. But I’m heartened by the analogy that we can eradicate cancer like we did the plague.
There will be a breakthrough. Today, for the most part, only third world countries suffer plague outbreaks, like Madagascar very recently. I’m not concerned about buboes; they don’t come up on my maternal radar, although 600 years ago my English ancestors probably worried about them constantly.
I’m picturing the near future, a day when people marvel that cancer ran so long unchecked…when they pity us for our “Dark Ages” disease. Cancer researchers make strides daily, like Dr. Olson in Seattle, who has developed “tumor paint” to make it easier for surgeons to excise diseased tissue while leaving good tissue intact, as well as working on anti-cancer compounds, optides. These optides improve the wretched process of chemotherapy which targets healthy and cancerous cells alike—the optides only attack the bad cells.
Jennifer Kranz’s parents squeezed metaphoric lemons in desperation and grief to pummel them into pulpy lemonade. Their nonprofit organization Unravel promises to “unravel” pediatric cancer through fundraising to support researchers who are eager and innovative and merely lack funding. Unravel monies recently permitted Dr. Olsen to hire not one but two interns. Being part of such a tangible step forward towards a cure makes me sleep better at night, although my eyes still burn when I think about Jennifer, forever lost.
To read Libby’s blog or to contribute to Unravel, visit http://unravelpediatriccancer.org.
All images used with permission by Libby Kranz.