Terminate here: the culture of cancer

Art & Lit

On April 19th 2010, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour the size of a golf ball.  On May 10th, the medical equivalent of a Black & Decker power saw cut through my skull and the parasitic cluster was removed from the right frontal lobe.  On May 27th (you never forget the dates), I was informed that despite the apparent success of the operation my situation was considered terminal due to the remaining cancerous cells that would reform and then navigate to the centre of my brain.  I was told it would take a handful of years rather than months, but at 38, my countdown to extinction had begun.

Like you, I bought into the idea of living into my dotage.  Like you, I envisaged the pleasure of nostalgia; how the bookends of a long life would sandwich remarkable changes in a life transformed by people, places, and technology.  Like you, I looked forward to the obligatory mid-life crisis with the prospect of wearing pink shirts, holding my belly in, dying my hair, and bemoaning the current state of music (though to be fair, I already do some of this).  Yet, impossible though it still feels, I should have indulged in a mid-life crisis several years ago when I was unwittingly half-way through this one stab at existence.  But this is the thing with a terminal prognosis: contrary to the cliché, your life doesn’t flash before you, but your future certainly does.  It’s a future lost to life’s cutting room floor, like photographic negatives that will never be developed and realised in colour.  The bookends of this life, then, will stand much closer to each other than I could have hoped.

Apparently, in travel-related disasters, shock renders 12% of victims motionless.  To some extent I remain in this frozen state of disbelief, largely because I feel perfectly healthy now, as though what happened in 2010 was just a protracted and rather unpleasant dream.  But cancer makes you oscillate.  You feel a visceral punch of reality one moment, followed by an exhausted acceptance of your fate the next.  Yet, despite the misfortune of my position, it is important to spread the news of the present tense, or the ‘living in the now’, as the saying goes.  The “Terminate here” sign might be visible, but it does, believe it or not, bring its pleasures, and those pleasures can emanate from culture, the culture of cancer.

Cancer has not always been represented with due care though.  If cancer has a publicity agent it might be Darren Lamb, the overwhelmingly incompetent entertainment manager in Extras, who assigns his acts the most ludicrous of projects.  How else could you explain Snap’s 1992 hit single with its notorious line, “I’m as serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer”?  Thankfully more esteemed cultural figures have saved cancer from exclusive association to such insensitive dross.  New College alumnus Dennis Potter, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, and former Balliol student Christopher Hitchens, who was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer last June, are more inspiring than any self-help book, more honest than some doctors, and certainly more enlightening and humorous than Turbo B’s pathetic rap.

In his final interview with Melvyn Bragg, playwright Dennis Potter spoke of celebrating the present tense, declaring that the ‘nowness of everything is quite wonderress’.  He famously spoke of appreciating the ‘whitest, frothiest, blossomist of blossom’ that had just appeared in his garden.  Potter, who died just three weeks later, did not seek pity but rather to open people’s minds to the glories of living in the now.  Cancer, then, despite its horrors, is paradoxical and can bring one to a state that may otherwise be unattainable.

Polemicist Christopher Hitchens deals with his demise in a remarkably frank and public way, highlighting the stockpile of cancer clichés and how the so-called ‘battle’ with the disease is a misleading term, as in reality, it battles you.  As Hitchens says, you never hear that someone died after a long battle with old age; it’s always cancer that is seen in this combative way.  Like me, Hitchens is an atheist, which brings specific complications when taking this existential fast lane on the road to oblivion.  As he points out though, being diagnosed with cancer is not the end of everything but rather the beginning of living beyond that cliché of taking each day as it comes. It’s an obscene finale, all right, but a magical and liberating one too.

Organic carrots, a daily glass of Bordeaux (they both contain cancer-fighting Flavanoids), and an unpronounceable chemotherapy drug, all keep my cancerous wolf from the door.   This means that in private I look like an alcoholic Bugs Bunny, chomping on raw carrots, swigging from a bottle of Claret, and always asking the Doc, “What’s up?”.  The spring is nearly here though and I look forward to seeing the whitest, frothiest, blossomist of blossom.  I suspect it will be like seeing it for the first and last time simultaneously.

“We’re the only beings, the only living things that know we’ll die, yet this doesn’t stop us from pretending we’ll live forever.”

15 thoughts on “Terminate here: the culture of cancer

  1. I wonder, were you offered, or are you taking, Avastin as a treatment? My father was stage IV, inoperable glioblastoma and is now in remission. All the best. George Baikal.

  2. Hi George,

    Thanks for letting me know about that; much appreciated. I did ask my Oncologist about Avastin last year and he said there was no evidence that it would help my situation (for the record I have a mixed grade tumour of 2/3). However, if you’re telling me that your father is in remission (I’m so pleased for you and for him, that’s wonderful – I didn’t think it was possible), I will certainly raise this again. I notice from various web-sites that Avastin is prescribed for grade 4 tumours and there’s no mention of grade 2/3, so maybe this is the issue. Then again, the chemo drug I take is normally for glioblastoma and I’m being treated with that, so the hospital treating me already have an open-mind to drugs and are proud of doing this differently. I shall investigate further. Thanks again for letting me know.

  3. Mark, what a moving and inspirational article and interview. It must’ve been difficult to write but so well put. My only wish was that it wasn’t my wonderful cousin I’d just read about. Take care and stay strong. x

  4. With the utmost respect for you and your predicament, you sound under researched on this topic. Recent research in mainstream journal literature indicates that both mulberry and milk thistle are effective against glioma (brain cancer) cells in the laboratory and possibly in vivo. You should check yourself in PubMed and you need to read the full articles, so use the college library or other institutional provider you have access to. To be underresearched in this area and to go with standard treatment is the least promising path to remission. If you wish to be properly briefed any further on recent mainstream research you may email. Please bear in mind most people in the field are extremely behind in keeping up with the latest, especially in phytochemicals, so your doc and other professionals may be underinformed also.

  5. Here’s one example:

    Nutr Cancer. 2010 Apr;62(3):402-12.
    Mulberry fruit (Moris fructus) extracts induce human glioma cell death in vitro through ROS-dependent mitochondrial pathway and inhibits glioma tumor growth in vivo.
    Jeong JC, Jang SW, Kim TH, Kwon CH, Kim YK.

    Dongguk University, Kyung Ju, Korea.
    Mulberry has been reported to contain wide range of polyphenols and have chemopreventive activity. However, little has been known regarding the effect of mulberry fruit extracts on cell viability in vitro in human glioma cells and the anticancer efficacy in vivo. This study was undertaken to examine the effect of mulberry fruit (Moris fructus; MF) extracts on cell viability in vitro and anticancer efficacy in vivo.

  6. Here’s another (silibinin is an extract of milk thistle):

    Neurochem Res. 2009 Aug;34(8):1479-90. Epub 2009 Mar 5.
    Silibinin inhibits glioma cell proliferation via Ca2+/ROS/MAPK-dependent mechanism in vitro and glioma tumor growth in vivo.
    Kim KW, Choi CH, Kim TH, Kwon CH, Woo JS, Kim YK.

    Department of Neurosurgery, College of Medicine, Pusan National University, Pusan 602-739, Korea.
    Anticancer activity of silibinin, a flavonoid, has been demonstrated in various cancer cell types. However, the underlying mechanism and in vivo efficacy in glioma were not elucidated. The present study was undertaken to determine the effect of silibinin on glioma cell proliferation in vitro and to examine whether silibinin inhibits tumor growth in vivo. Silibinin resulted in inhibition of proliferation in a dose- and time-dependent manner, which was largely attributed to cell death.

    These and other studies suggest that these phytochemicals are more effective against gliomas than current chemotherapy, and are certainly non toxic. Unfortunately, professional extremism in support of standard treatment disparages treatment with such natural substances, so you have to research directly on PubMed if you want to be up to date.

    Also bear in mind that in th US the FDA bears down hard on any initiative in research along these lines which tends to be undertaken outside the major institutions. Interestingly the Polish born Burzynski in Texas has survived numerous attacks to win permission for Phase III studies, a story well documented in the recent film released last year in the US, and obtainable on DVD.

    See this page at Science Guardian for a write up: http://www.scienceguardian.com/blog/burzynski-alternative-medicine-pioneer-conquers-tumors-fda.htm

  7. Hi Anthony,

    I’m not sure that ‘thank you’ is an adequate response to the information you have kindly provided here, but ‘thank you’ is all I have. You’ve certainly opened my eyes to a few things and are correct to state that I am under-researched on this topic, or at least it feels this way in light of the details you have given…. I must stress that whilst I am guilty (if that’s the right word) of trusting doctors too much, I did transfer my treatment from one hospital to another due to mistrusting the information that one oncologist provided in relation to chemotherapy. In fact, the hospital currently treating me use chemotherapy (Temozolomide) as standard, regardless of tumour grade, and they are the only UK hospital to do this, hence my decision to switch my care to their supervision.

    However, I take your point regarding doctors not being entirely up to date where phytochemicals are concerned (amongst other things) so I will investigate all the information and links you have posted. Given what’s at stake here – my life – I’d be incredibly stupid not to thoroughly research these areas and see if my life can be prolonged and – who knows – my condition cured. Should this be the outcome I will owe you far more than a ‘thank you’.

    As I have no idea who you are, please feel free to contact me via facebook if you wish.

    Either way, I hope to be indebted to you.

  8. Mark, thank you for your civil gratitude for my clumsy attempt to enlighten you in your very alarming predicament, I only hope to be the bearer of good news. I am the writer of scienceguardian, a site I have devoted to correcting wayward science and scientists since 2005, owing to revelations I encountered while working as a science reporter/writer in the US for some years. I was earlier an economist and writer on economics so I was primed to see how money has been distorting science more and more over fifty years as its funding requirements expanded. I have taken a sabbatical for eight months and am now returning to the task, and will post on this topic as soon as I can. But the bottom line is clear. Brain cancer is unresponsive to standard chemo and even surgery and those standard treatments are best avoided in favor of sitting quietly in your armchair and sipping mulberry juice and milk thistle, as the research indicates. Or a quick trip to the Texas location of Burzynski, after viewing his DVD, which should convince you that he has something to offer, whether he can now finance Phase III trials or not (those are now running at up to a billion dollars in some cases, and Burzynski’s remedy may not be patentable – I am not clear on the point yet).

    All in all, your Oxford education should have trained you to pursue this research efficiently, and I wish you very great luck with it. Just remember that Burzynski has beaten back the FDA with remissions of 25% at 5 years dealing with patients that have already been through the chemo mill, which has weakened their responses drastically in many ways. So if you avoid chemo and just take his treatment, or even sit quietly as Kennedy might have done sipping the above mentioned stuff, mulberry or milk thistle extract from your local FDA unapproved alternative medicine store, you have a good chance of rescuing yourself both from the cancer and from the depredations of the ignorant but highly esteemed professionals.

    This is not my personal medical advice of course, since I am not authorized to give any advice or treatment on any professional basis, and would be liable to be prosecuted in the US if I did. I am merely reporting to you what the scientific research indicates. I am familiar with the research through PubMed and by knowing highly reliable sources in the field who understand that the profession is only slowly moving towards proper dietary advice from its current obsession with pills.

    I will send a message to you on Facebook and follow your response with interest and hopeful expectation that you will benefit from your own research into this line of thinking. But check out the post I linked to on Burzynski. It is enthusiastic but accurate.

  9. PS Sorry Mark, I cannot discern which one is you on Facebook. My name and address is posted on the bottom of the front page of Science Guardian, lower blue section, if you want to let me know.

    By the way, Christopher Hitchens is a tragic case of someone who is unable to take his own advice, in that he has no idea of how to retain his valuable skepticism when dealing with medical men, despite the long history of cynical remarks by famous people over the centuries in this regard, with which he should be familiar.

    In fact, like many fine minds in the arts he is pretty hopeless when it comes to science or medicine, in my personal experience, since I informed him in person on another huge topic where his assumption that the standard wisdom is correct has no basis in good science, and yet he proved completely resistant to my influence. Now we are going to lose him to the fatal care of his trusted advisor and fellow member of the Washington elite, the director of the NIH, Francis Collins, who has put him into a study of a new and “promising” drug of some kind which presumably “promises” to be toxic to his cancer but not to him, instead of being guided by PubMed, where esophageal cancer has been shown to be responsive to phytochemicals also. As a matter of fact, he could find this out from Google.

    How are the mighty fallen. This is going to be a very great loss when he goes, and nothing indicates that he will be saved. I would have posted on that topic too, earlier, and sent him a copy, but he has publicly dismissed any advice from outsiders in one of his Vanity Fair columns.

    Yet another irreplaceable mind lost to the assumption that the experts always know what they are talking about.

  10. Apparently we were too late to save Mark, since he has not replied to these (intended to be ) helpful comments. If this is so, it is regrettable. We have lost another bright and well educated mind to medical misinformation.

    Either that or perhaps he has asked his medical professional who drew on his inadequate training and research to tell him not to pay attention to crackpots and charlatans who suggest that natural phytochemical remedies rooted in human environmental adaptation in prehistory are more effective that drugs designed by 21st Century men and women desperately seeking to create profitable products for their employing pharma co.

  11. Anthony – what a low thing to add to this wonderful and heartful article…`Apparently we were too late to save Mark’, having read with interest your `kind original’ attempt at helping this guy, you show nothing but ignorance and arrogance…..either help folk out because you have helpful knowledge and information, or just don’t bother if you can only later offer hurtful sarcasm.

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