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I've seen the star of Bethlehem, very early on Christmas morning. While peacekeeping in Egypt's Sinai Desert, I would run before daybreak as soldiers are prone to do. Although the desert is quite cold in December, dawn running was a habit hard to break. I ran the camp perimeter to check the defensive positions and greet soldiers enjoying the banter in three different languages. Starting in the south perimeter and running counterclockwise, the predawn western sky was dark except for the stars that were so clear, they were painted on the black night sky. Passing along the northern perimeter, the sky lightened and my expectation was the sun starting its rise. But, no, not that day. Right on the distant horizon was a cosmic anomaly, a false dawn, but a bright shining nevertheless. I was looking at the star in the east seen by the Three Wise Men as they rode in search of Jesus. I would later learn, it was not a star but a rare conjunction of the planets -- Jupiter, Saturn and Mars -- all rising in the east slightly before being washed out by the rising sun. I am awestruck by that memory. Many years later after surviving a years worth of cancer surgery and while waiting the results of my first post-surgical diagnostic scan, my entire family gathered to celebrate Christmas. Mom, dad, four brothers, daughter, and a posse of nieces who overwhelmed my one nephew comprised the gathering. Despite my manifest uncertainty, we had a joyous time. I can count on a single hand the times my family gathered. With two Galli soldiers, someone was always missing on deployment. But Christmas in 2004 was an assembly formation, and the clan was all present and accounted for. We celebrated Christmas and my life. I am awestruck by that memory. Then started the clammer of lung cancer treatment. In my treatment years after the Christmas 2004 assembly, my life hovered in sadness and despair. I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by uncertainty, indeed I could think of little else. I forget there are only two things certain in the human experience: birth and death. Everything else is uncertain; outcomes are unpredictable. Treatment was working for I was granted extra life. There were many opportunities for joy but they were frittered away. I am awestruck by those memories. In common with all lung cancer survivors, having been born, I have only one certain human experience yet to deal with -- death. Its timing is uncertain with or without lung cancer. In my memories of active treatment, I chose to let life pass me by forever losing opportunities for joy. Today we celebrate a birth, a new beginning. It was announced by a star. I've seen the star. Let the joy of this birth be a new beginning for all lung cancer survivors. Let us live and find joy in the life we have and be awestruck by the memories of life well lived. Stay the course.
Red, in white shirt and loose thin-black tie and sweating in Maine’s summer heat, is leaning on a rock-wall fence. He’s just opened Andy’s letter found under the black obsidian rock. In the background we hear Andy reading his evocative description of hope: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.” The movie Shawshank Redemption is a powerful story about hope and life with a message that should resonate with every lung cancer survivor. I watched the movie the other day and made the connection. Andy was imprisoned for two life sentences with no possibility of parole. He was wrongly convicted of murder and throughout the story of his day-to-day life in prison, everyone tells him “hope is a dangerous thing.” On escaping, Andy proclaims that hope is “maybe the best of things.” The movie story line is exactly parallel to the plight of the late-stage diagnosed lung cancer patient ⎯- an unforgiving disease with hope as the most effective means of avoiding consequences. For lung cancer, hope is not a medical remedy. While new lung cancer treatments are emerging more frequently now, basic research funding to diagnose and treat lung cancer lags other cancers. Perhaps the pace may pick up, one hopes. Perhaps a treatment may emerge just in time to save a life, one hopes. Perhaps a miracle remission occurs, one hopes. Hope may not be a medical remedy but, for many of us, it is our only effective medicament. And, in my case, hope is “maybe the best of things.” Recall the story line of Shawshank. Andy’s future is confinement in a mind numbing institution, but he makes a choice to live in a different reality and works diligently, every day, on a novel escape plan. He makes a conscious decision to live. He embraces the hope of escape against all odds. Andy’s poignant characterization about life reveals his reasoning: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” Exactly! Sometimes in the heat of lung cancer treatment, we forget its purpose ⎯- extended life. No one knows how long but life for most is extended. So what do we do with the extension? Re-read Andy’s characterization. We long for a period of life extending into satisfying old age. But most without lung cancer do not dwell on the amount remaining on account. Lung cancer patients take careful measure of the balance. But, measure for what end? I believe, if one chooses treatment, then one chooses life. Rather than dwell on the remaining balance, focus on doing something you enjoy everyday. I suggest a survivor forget the past, declare the future irrelevant, and live in the day. “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Stay the course.
Just reported is a Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Cornell University study showing but 5% of terminally ill cancer patients understand the gravity of their disease and prognosis. Moreover, only 23 percent of these had a discussion about life expectancy with their doctor. At first pass, I questioned the validity of the percentages. They were so low they bordered on unbelievable. This had to be mainstream press sensationalism at work! Then I spoke with an expert, and she convinced me I was not a typical lung cancer patient. The fact that I read about my disease after diagnosis was a big tell. Many do not. My education about lung cancer started the first night of my diagnostic hospital stay. The lesson delivered ⎯ a very pragmatic and frank discussion with my general practitioner. His words characterizing my prognosis were "slim odds." He didn't want me to give up but wanted to ensure I knew the enemy. After discharge from my diagnosis hospital admission, I burned up the Google Search Engine reading everything I could about lung cancer. In 2004 there were not a lot of sources, but there were enough to scare the living daylights out of me. Research revealed a very low probability of living 5 years even with effective treatment. My bravery evaporated. My wife recalls that time. She reminded that my inquisitive nature departed with bravery. Martha asked questions. These explored diagnosis, treatment possibilities, and prognosis. I mostly stared at the clock in the consultation room. Or tried to change the subject. My oncologist was frank. He said even with successful surgery, I had high odds of reoccurrence. When tumors appeared after pneumonectomy, he was down to chemotherapy to combat my lung cancer. Chemotherapy would buy time but it wouldn’t eradicate. Time purchased allowed for CyberKnife technology to emerge that was a surer kill. But treatment opportunities were explored because Martha was persistent. After a year of surgical mayhem and two years of Taxol Carboplatin hardened with Tarceva, I was barely along for the ride. Sure, I knew my prognosis and life expectancy probability but knowledge did not empower me; it empowered Martha. So maybe the study numbers are low because patients understand their dire straits. Maybe we know and are afraid to talk about it. In case you are wondering, lung cancer is deadly. Mostly because it displays few symptoms and is often diagnosed at late stage. The treatment tool kit for late stage lung cancer is largely empty. Why? Now that is a good question; one deserving of academic study. I’ll start. Let’s hypothesize that lung cancer is a self-induced disease ⎯ people give it to themselves. If this is true, why should society invest in new diagnostic or curative means? As a logical extension of the hypothesis, society should never invest in curing maladies that are self-induced. How is taxpayer funded research for HIV/AIDS by the National Institute of Health to the tune of $3 billion a year explained? It is self-induced. Some will assert that a proportion of HIV/AIDS patients get the affliction accidentally. Yes, and some proportion of lung cancer patients are never smokers. But, drug abuse is completely self-induced and it garners just over $1 billion in yearly research. In the same data year, lung cancer was allocated but $225 million. No research for self-induced hypothesis fails. Let’s construct another hypothesis: society funds diagnostic and curative research for diseases that kill the most people. Seems reasonable. Scarce resources ought to flow to afflictions that take the most lives. Let’s examine the data. In 2012, HIV/AIDS claimed 12,963 deaths according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In that same year, lung cancer killed 157,425! Drug abuse is now anointed our national pandemic. Indeed prescription opioid overdose is “raging through the country.” CDC drug overdose deaths amounted to 38,538 in 2014 but in that year lung cancer deaths were 158,080. Lung cancer is our pandemic. It has been for a long time. The more-deaths-the-more-funding hypothesis is toast! Frankly, I’m getting tired of the medical research community squandering precious dollars studying what cancer patients think, feel, or understand. What is far more relevant is how to find, fix, and finish lung cancer. Stay the course.