Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Real Evil Undead

My new Macbook has a built-in camera, which gives me endless opportunities to be horrified by my own aging process. The craned-neck pose is good for disguising a softening jawline. Another observation: my hair doesn't seem to be growing. I mean, it IS growing, but at a glacial pace. At this rate, my bangs should reach my eyebrows by early 2010.

Recently a few people have asked me how I'm doing, always with penetrating eye contact and an emphasis on the first syllable of "DOing." I had my six month post-treatment mammogram in November, and saw my oncologist in December. There was no detectable sign of cancer. Each milestone is cause for hope, but I'd prefer to hold off on the high-fives for now. It's not that unusual to be "cancer-free" right after chemotherapy and radiation.

Cancer is kind of like--you know how in horror movies the undead appear in the context of their pre-zombie jobs? It adds some macabre humor, especially if the contrast is extreme. For example, there might be a zombie ice-cream truck driver staggering around his vehicle (which is still playing a continuous loop of "Turkey in the Straw") wearing a blood-spattered white uniform. Cancer cells, like zombies, once had perfectly normal jobs. My mammary gland cells were given the assignment to wait around for hormonal signals to start producing milk. Since I never gave them the go-ahead on that, they used their spare time creating painful little lumps and bumps of calcium in my girls. And then, some of them turned into cancer.

Normal cells are supposed to eventually die, a process called apoptosis. A cell with damaged DNA may not go into apoptosis, and the immune system has to detect and then assassinate it. Recent research hints that we all have had cancer, but in most cases the body's own death squad hunts down and kills it before it is detectable.

As I mentioned, my breast cancer used to be normal mammary cells. Unfortunately, once they become "zombies," cancer cells not only refuse to die, but multiply rapidly. They may also wander into the lymphatic and blood streams, which carry them to other body systems, where they continue to multiply. This is called metastatis, and it is how cancer of a non-vital organ system, like mammary glands, kills. Breast cancer, because of its previous legitimate "job," is especially attracted to calcium. Because of this, metastasis sometimes occurs in the bones.

Cancer is still maddenly difficult to detect until it's almost too late; after treatment, there's no way to know if it is really gone for good. It is ironic that a management regime is in place for a relatively new disease, HIV/AIDS. Although the disease and the drugs used to treat it are debilitating, HIV patients can live for nearly normal life spans. Perhaps instead of wearing pink t-shirts plastered with corporate logos and "walking for a cure," we cancer survivors should look to the examples of AIDS activists. We can chain ourselves to gates and scream at health officials and otherwise become so disagreeable that someone will figure out how to give us our lives back for good.

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