Monday, July 10, 2006

Tumors have faces

I read with great sadness Abel PharmBoy's story about the unexpected death of the brother of one of his past lab workers from a staph infection, related to his treatment for osteosarcoma. This young man was battling his cancer, and seemingly doing well. To be felled by an opportunistic infection seems unfair.

These kinds of stories always seem to hit me more emotionally now than they used to. Maybe it's because I'm getting older or maybe it's because I have two small children. I don't know. Since I work in the cancer research field, I spend a lot of time thinking about cancer. It's a lot easier to do this if you forget the patients and the people behind the tumors. We cancer researchers talk about our "tumor banks" as prized possessions, which they are for research purposes. Yet it can seem a bit glib at times to be "glad" to have such extensive ones. We like to say in our manuscript introductions "over 170,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the US this year". But those numbers and tumors have families, dreams, futures and potential - most of which will be cut short. I had an experience back when I first opened my own cancer research lab that has stayed with me all these years and always reminds me that tumors have faces.

I had just started my first independent laboratory at a University where the 1995 America's Cup yacht race was being played out. This was the year America3 had its first ever, all-female crew. The wife of one of the coaches for the America3 team had been diagnosed and was being treated locally for breast cancer. She wanted to hold a fund-raising event for breast cancer research to benefit the Cancer Center and for some reason, my laboratory was selected as the destination for these funds. I remember meeting Candace. She was a warm, open, engaging, energetic and smart woman; I liked her instantly. She was excited about doing something for breast cancer research. You wouldn't have even known she was sick, except her hair was gone from the chemotherapy.

The fundraiser was a chance to take a sail with the crew on the America3 training boat. Now I have some sailing experience from my youth, racing on a 14 foot Lightning at our local sail club, but this was something altogether different. You really got a feel for the science and technology that went into designing this spectacular boat. What was even more impressive was that the crew took the time, during this very intense and important yachting event, to hold this fundraiser. It was quite successful and along with some matching dollars, made a respectable contribution to my budget. I felt an enormous responsibility to Candace and the Cancer Center to use this money wisely. After all, it came from the hard work and dedication of someone currently battling breast cancer.

When the race was over, I had the opportunity to meet Candace for lunch at my favorite local restaurant overlooking the ocean. She was upbeat, exicted about the potential of being associated with the next America's Cup in New Zealand in a few years, and thrilled to have her hair growing back. She showed me a picture of her two little girls (aged 8 and 5 then I think) dressed in frilly sundresses and floppy hats- beautiful kids. I have that picture seared in my mind because they were so adorable and I wondered how it was she balanced such a positive attitude with the thoughts of potentially missing out on the trials and triumphs of those two beautiful children. We hugged, we wished each other well and we parted.

Some months later, and I really can't remember when, I returned to my office and listened to my phone messages. On one message was the voice of a male but he spoke so softly I couldn't understand the message. I must have played it 20 times. Then I finally deciphered it as Candace's husband calling to tell me she had passed away (was I really on the "must call" list? I was so humbled by that). I called him back and spoke to him briefly but what could I say? I hung up and just sat for awhile. I thought about the face behind that tumor and that battle with breast cancer. I felt depressed. I felt sad for the family to have lost such a strong and vibrant woman.

For some reason, even before Abel PharmBoy's post, I'd been thinking about Candace a lot lately. I wondered how her family was doing but I hadn't kept in touch and did I want to intrude on their lives if I was a reminder of a very bad time they had put behind them. Armed with little information, a 15 minute internet search connected me with her husband's place of work. I sent an email to the company and left it up to him to return my email. Much to my surprise, he did and we exchanged updates on our lives. The family is doing well and he added:

"All they way to the end Candace did whatever she could to help others. If the A3 fund racer helped you in your mission to find a cure and possibly have let other cancer victims spend some more time with their loved ones she would have been so pleased."

I kept Candace's pathology report on my desk for many years and through many moves, as a reminder that tumors have faces. For me it's important to remember that what I am doing is not just for the advancement of science and yes, a "cure" for cancer, but more importantly, it's for people like Candace; it's for the patient and their children and the lost time.

1 comment:

etbnc said...

Thanks for this. You've written a good, helpful essay about a difficult topic. That's a noteworthy contribution. Thanks.