I’ve been a little quiet as of late because of this thing…
A couple of weeks ago in San Francisco, I discovered a painful area in my abdomen and thought was simply the result of overexertion… Or I hoped so. Upon getting home and palpating it more, it was discovered to be a mass. A painful, somewhat mobile mass… The thinking was that it might be a hernia given a bout with the flu which resulted in lots of coughing followed by 4 days straight of shoveling heavy snow bracketed by a couple of trips where I carried heavy camera gear. However, I could not reduce the mass and it appeared to be in the wrong place for a classic hernia. This of course scared the hell out of us and I immediately booked an appointment with my physician. My physician looked at it, poked at it, asked lots of questions and came to the conclusion that he did not know what it was. Spooky… So, we went in for an imaging study which, the image above is from, but that study was also inconclusive. What we found on ultrasound was a complex structure that also had a vascular supply. That was more troubling… Next step was surgery to get it out. I did not need this mass or want it, so out it would come and a surgery was scheduled for the day after we would get back from Portland, Oregon. That was a tough weekend and I am grateful to H for helping me through it.
Surgery was remarkably easy all things considered (anesthesias have advanced considerably in the past 20 years), but any time they cut into your body wall, its gonna hurt and hurt it does. I’ve been hobbling around the lab like an old man for two days, but what troubled me more than the pain was wondering whether this thing was cancerous or not. Nobody could tell us anything and we would just have to wait for the pathology report.
Long story short, the pathology report came back today and its good news… Benign fibrovascular tissue. Likely the result of trauma to soft tissue (sparring, bicycle accidents, motorcycle accidents, soccer, etc…) that loses its blood supply and hardens. This happens to lots of folks apparently and much of the time, they go unnoticed. Typically they get walled off by the body and you don’t notice them, but since this was up against my abdomen wall, you could see/feel it and it had started to cause pain.
While the finding of benign fibrovascular tissue is good news for me, this experience along with others close to me who have had cancer or have recently died from cancer is a tacit reminder of how scary cancer can be and yet how common an experience this is. There are many that have written far more about cancer from a patients perspective than I have or will, and some, like @Xeni have even publicly communicated their journey through cancer diagnosis and treatment. Xeni’s work in telling the story of her journey through a cancer diagnosis and treatment has been a pioneering effort. Because Xeni is young and has a young and well connected following, her open discussion and documentation of the process has brought cancer awareness to a great many people in a demographic who otherwise might not have known about some of the issues until later in life when they themselves might have to endure the experience, puzzling and fumbling through without ideas or guidance. It has been amazing to watch her go through that process and see how many people have responded in support and solidarity. Xeni has touched a great many lives through her frankness in talking about the process, the diagnosis, the fear, the psychology, sociology and economics of cancer while at the same time, revealed a glaring gap in the healthcare discussion.
We need more open discussion about these issues, but because of the socioeconomic realities in the United States, I am actually surprised that this sort of thing happened in the USA first. Even though we had the first and most pervasive social networks with first, the BBS systems, then other social networks like Orkut, Facebook and Twitter, I would have thought that perhaps because of health insurance in this country and the fear of protected health information getting out, people would be reluctant to talk about or discuss personal medical issues. After all, insurance companies could use that information against you and deny coverage if they find out about information. If we had universal health care coverage, these issues might be more open and less taboo to discuss, and I suspect that might be the case for many medical conditions. But as it happened in the case of breast cancer, Xeni brought that discussion forward and for that, I will always see her as a brave human being.
The reality is, from a biological perspective, cancer is one of those diseases that will hit all of us, if we live long enough. The trick to dealing with cancer however, is to find it early, make a proper diagnosis and treat it appropriately. This is where science can help by pushing the boundaries of diagnosis earlier and earlier in the process before the cancer transforms and becomes more aggressive and helping us to identify more specific and targeted treatments that affect those cells that are abnormally dividing. That is the job of scientists, or at least those scientists who choose to study cancer. Assuming you are not a cancer scientist, what can you do to help? Personally, you should keep tabs on your own health. Be assertive and informed. Go to Cancer.org where they have some guidelines for early detection of cancer. Check yourselves routinely for masses, eat healthy, don’t smoke, drink in moderation and exercise. What can you do for the wider community? Support basic research… Full stop. The biggest advancements in science have come from basic science research and not necessarily applied research, despite the huge push towards applied research in recent years. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the largest funding agency for biomedical health in the world, but it is a very small slice of the tax dollar, particularly compared with defense spending. In fact, NIH funding has been dropping off dramatically in recent years, leading to the loss of many promising scientists and needed scientific progress. What you can do for cancer research (and all basic research) is let your elected officials know that you want them to support basic biomedical research.
On another personal note: This experience for me is also an impetus for us to push a bit harder on one of our side projects. We are a vision lab and that is the priority, but when good science comes calling that has impact for people’s lives, you have to follow it up and go where the science leads you. Besides, the technology that was invented here to study the retina has broad applicability for the study of wide ranging biological problems, including cancer. This is what happens from basic research, unexpected applications that tell us something new in another field entirely. This side project that I alluded to here is not yet funded and we’ve been pursuing it on our own time, with our own personal funds, and just this week, we’ve been rewarded with some results. They are terribly exciting results that reveal new biology and tells us more about how cancer works. That is all I can say about that project for now, but it has just returned on its investment.