How quickly do cells grow?

I don’t ordinarily spend a lot of time thinking about how quickly the cells in my body grow. But one of the many benefits of cancer Is that it’s giving me an insight into that question. I’m now learning a bit about this and particularly about how it affects every aspect of the cancer and chemo treatment.

Detection

Many cancers are detected in the first place because the cancer cells grow so much faster than the surrounding cells. For example, a skin cancer might show up as a spot or lesion on the skin that enlarges much faster. Other cancers show up as launch center of the skin or processes that interfere with normal body function.

In my case (ALCL) I did not detect cancer in this way. The cancer cells were in fact growing much more quickly than ordinary cells but that was all happening internally, in the abdominal lymph nodes.

Diagnosis

A key part of my cancer diagnosis was a PET scan. This is an imaging test done using hybrid PET/CT cameras. It uses 18F-sodium fluoride as a marker. This radioactive substance lights up the most quickly growing cells. In my case this showed brightly lit abdominal lymph nodes. There was also some involvement of bone marrow and spleen, indicating possible cancer cells growing quickly, but not as quickly as in the lymph nodes.

Treatment

The actual chemo treatment also depends on differential cell growth rates. The cytotoxins kill the most actively growing cells (the cancer), but fewer of the regular body cells. The theory is that one can keep zapping the cancer without doing irreparable harm to the rest of the body.

Side Effects

The most obvious effect of differential cell growth rates is in the side effects of the chemo therapy. For example, I lost the dark hair on my head but not the white hairs. This is good in the sense that I’m not completely bald, but it also shows that the cells that generate the dark hairs on my head are more alive (growing faster) than the cells that generate the white hairs.

I’ve also lost some of the hair under my arms but very little of the hair growing on the tops of my arms. One of the worst effects is in my mouth. The cells in the lips, gums, tongue, and interior of the mouth are rapidly growing cells that are affected more severely by the chemotherapy than are other cells in the body.

More

A good, accessible resource on cell growth is Cell Biology by the Numbers by Ron Milo and Rob Phillips. Their chart makes clear why chemo affects the digestive system, blood cells, and mouth cells more than say, fat or skeletal cells.

They point out that hair grows at about 1 cm per month, while fingernails grow at about 0.3 cm per month. Coincidentally, that is about the same speed as the continental spreading in plate tectonics that increases the distance between North America and Europe.

That last factoid should come in handy someday; I’m just not sure when.

Coming back to Texas

Days 11-17: Leander, Texas, 2856 miles, 13 states

There’s a land I know where the bluebonnets grow that is paradise to me,

From Amarillo skies down to Mexico, from the Pecos to the sea

Kenneth Threadgill, “Coming back to Texas”

Fifty years ago, I heard Kenneth Threadgill and the Hootenanny Hoots perform “Coming back to Texas” at the Split Rail in South Austin. This was in the “land that gave me birth.”

I went with good friends to share pitchers of beer, enjoy fried onion rings, and listen to great music performed by Threadgill, George McLean, and other notables. I should retract that. The music wasn’t always “great,” especially when folks like me chose to sing along.

“Frauleinwas a favorite and we weren’t awake enough to see that the term might be sexist. We were transported by lines like

Far across deep blue waters, lives an old German’s daughter

By the banks of the old river Rhine.

It was easy to ignore the fact that the actual subject of the song was a German-American living in Houston. If the singer had really meant

By the same stars above you, I swear that I love you

You are my pretty fraulein

he might have put more effort into just making the relationship work, not dreaming about the old river Rhine.

The Lone Star and Pearl longneck beers were cheap, there was no cover charge, no dress code, and no paving in the parking area. Hippies, cowboys, and graduate students mingled with little concern for status or political beliefs.

This was the Old Austin, near its end. Today, the streets around the Capitol and the University are just a tiny eye of calm in the middle of the hurricane of highways, suburban developments, and booming tech industry that characterize the New Austin.

But the real purpose of our stop in Austin was not to reminisce, but to see family, just a few of whom are shown here in a photo from dining out. The family time has been far more precious than even the memories of the Split Rail.

Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)
At Matt’s El Rancho
Checking out the lower vanagain bed for comfort and size
At sister Karen’s; Henry recovering from broken arm playing basketball

Primeval soggy

Days 5-6: Prince William Forest, VIrginia, 824 miles, 8 states

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie”
With the Williams. Guess which baseball team they support!

We stayed last night in Prince William Forest Park, Virginia. There had been a continuous rain for several hours leading up to our arrival in the area, so the grounds were soggy, the air was misty,  and the trees were dripping.

Our stay almost didn’t happen, because we’d made a mistake on our reservation. A ranger happened to pass by as we were considering speaking to the usurpers of our campsite. We learned that they were totally in the right and that our reservation was for a previous day. Fortunately, there was an unoccupied site we were able to use.

The Park sits next to the Quantico Marine Base, and as a reminder of the toll of war, the Quantico National Cemetery. The area of the Forest was once home to several villages, including one for former slaves.

It’s now a lush green landscape, much further along than our cape Cod vegetation and denser in any case. There’s a beautiful Scenic Drive, trails, well-spaced campsites, and limited, but well-functioning facilities.

We visited nephew Mark, his wife Laura, and their two boys in Springfield. It’s a sign of the enforced isolation of covid on top of our laziness that they’ve been in a new home for five years and we hadn’t seen it before.

Mark and Laura may have started a trend. We’ll be seeing at least seven family individuals or groups in domiciles new to us on this trip, and as a bonus, one family in Texas and another in California who’ve sold their homes and moved out, but don’t have a new one yet. In addition to covid, there are growing families and new jobs, maybe a little restlessness appropriate to our times.

Chess masters. Why is there no large screen TV?

Blue heron at Burke Lake

Intrepid explorers

Paulownia bush taking advantage of a disturbed area under a bridge

Cicadas preparing to emerge

The new baby

Day 3: Holmdel, New Jersey, 435 miles, 5 states

I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.

D. H. Lawrence, “The Enkindled Spring”

We’re now seeing family in New Jersey. This means renewing ties that have been too long restricted to email, phone and zoom. But it also means newing (?) ties with Claire, the baby who joined the world last September 5.

Yesterday we went for a walk in Deep Cut Gardens, an enchanting site with waterfalls, formal and informal gardens, statuary, and lush trails. It’s a marked contrast to the life of the man who developed it, Vito Genovese. He reportedly sought a retreat from mob warfare in New York City. See The Gangster’s Garden.

Packing for the Big Circle

Day 1: Wellfleet, Massachusetts, 0 miles, 1 state

Ring out the old, ring in the new

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells

After eight months hibernating, we’re about to set off on a big adventure. We’ll travel through 30 or more states in our vanagain, camping along the way, and visit well over 30 family members and old friends. We’re leaving just as the cherry tree is about to lose its last blossoms.

Susan and I now have our covid vaccinations and I’ve had my cardiac ablation. These should lessen our danger to others and ourselves, especially with the camping.

We’ve had several smaller jaunts in the vanagain, such as canoeing on the Raquette River. That’s helping us with the packing. We also remember many great adventures with Emily and Stephen in our VW camper.

Off to canoe on the Sangamon RIver, 1992
Off to canoe on the Sangamon RIver, 1992

The new camper van is similar to the VW, but it’s built on a Metris platform. Although much of it is familiar, the heater and AC both work. There’s also better gas mileage and enough acceleration to enter an interstate highway safely. So, a little less drama, but it’s still fun to drive.

The vanagain has all we need for extended travel and camping, but it doesn’t require us to stay in an RV park. It even parks in a standard garage.

Susan, packing the vanagain

Time travel in west Texas

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Sunrise out of the cabin

Ever since reading The Time Machine as a teenager, I, like most people, have wondered about time travel. And despite annoying naysaying from logicians and physicists, it still seems like an intriguing idea.

Wolf spider

Wolf spider

Susan and I just spent a week in far west Texas, where we experienced something like time travel. We stayed in a cabin in a caldera near Fort Davis. Other than a barbed wire fence, a single electric line, and a narrow, rutted dirt road there were no signs of human habitation––no other buildings, no cell service, no flights overhead.

An astute rancher might have pointed out that the male cattle were steers, not bulls, and that the cattle and many turkeys around were probably being raised for market. Closer inspection would reveal that there were some planted trees, both for shade and for pecans, but on the whole the impression was of desert isolation.

In this land the people are hard to find, but we could see yucca, sotol, ocotillo, prickly pear, sagebrush, mesquite, live oak, and uncountable wildflowers. We saw buzzards, mockingbirds, huge spiders, whitetail and mule deer. These living friends were framed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and unbelievable cloud formations.

(Reconstructed) Fort Davis from 1854

1854 Fort Davis (reconstructed)

This all made me think of my early days in Fort Worth. We lived then in the new suburbs on the edge of ranchland. In our childhood explorations we could find tarantulas and horned toads, tumbleweeds and cockleburs, scorpions and butterflies. The land seemed to stretch forever into remoteness and romance. When we looked up we could see the Milky Way and thousands of stars.

Fort Davis felt like that Fort Worth of long ago. The contentious Presidential race was irrelevant. The old cashier at the local market wanted to share interesting stories rather than to ring up grocery items. The buildings and houses looked like stage props for an old Western, until you realized that they were still in use, probably by the same family that settled here a century or two ago.

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Fort Davis itself lies at the base of a rhyolite cliff, the south side of the caldera, or box canyon, that held our cabin. With just a few steps we could reach the path to climb the cliff shown above. Without realizing it, we zoomed even further back in time, to an era of intense volcanic activity, which created the Davis Mountains. The rhyolite columns, tuff and pumice, volcanic peaks and domes, took us entirely away from the human world.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory (from mcdonaldobservatory.org)

But not long after that we learned what time travel could really be. We went to the nearby University of Texas McDonald Observatory, which takes advantage of the clear mountain air.

Among many projects at McDonald is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). This seeks to uncover the secrets of dark energy, using the large Hobby-Eberly Telescope and to survey the sky 10x faster than other facilities can do. It will eventually create the largest map of the Universe ever, with over a million galaxies. In doing so, HETDEX will look back in time 10 billion years.

If there is anything more amazing than the mind-stretching that Fort Davis does, it is that the area is so little visited. In addition to the sites mentioned above, there is a state park with numerous hiking trails, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens, interesting towns such as Alpine and Marfa, and the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, under the trees at Balmorhea State Park, which takes one back to the wonderful CCC projects of the 1930s.

 

Quetico, August 1963

Here are some photos from my trip to Quetico Provincial Park in August 1963. Notice the water damage on the 35mm slides, which is explained by the story that follows the photos.


In August of 1963, our Explorer Post 52 traveled to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park just west of Lake Superior on the Canada-U.S. border for a wilderness canoe trip. In order to get to Quetico, we journeyed for three days from Fort Worth in what was even then an old, yellow school bus. We stayed in Air Force bases, sleeping on the gym floors and experiencing steam baths for the first time.

This was a year of changes, including the arrival of the Beatles in the US and the assassination of President Kennedy. But the trip was the major event in my life that year.

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires. It was good exercise, too, especially with the canvas packs of those days. On portages, one of us would carry the canoe, one a food pack, which weighed 110 pounds in the beginning, and one all our gear–cotton sleeping bags, canvas tent, and clothes.

The Storm

We had been out for at least a week when the storm came up. It was on the Basswood River, but in a wide section, like a long lake. When the storm arrived, we decided not to risk a crossing and pulled into a cave a the base of a huge granite cliff with pictographs. “Picture rock” on Crooked Lake was shown in the September 1963 National Geographic, and I recall seeing the Basswood cliff when I returned from the trip.

I held my canoe onto the rock under this 100-foot cliff, as did Fred Moyer, our guide. The other two canoes held on to us, locked together to avoid capsizing.

After a few minutes, I released my grip on the rock for just a moment to tighten my poncho. As I did, lightning struck a solitary tree at the top of the cliff. The current traveled down the cliff to our cave. Everything went suddenly white, for some indefinite period. If you told me today that it was ten seconds or just one, I wouldn’t be able to dispute it, because time didn’t exist for me then. I could feel the charge in the air, and am still sensitive to changing electrical conditions. When I’ve felt that while canoeing, I get very nervous.

The current reached Fred’s hand, which was still touching the rock. His canoe, which was the only wood and canvas one, was shattered. Bob Cocanower and Gary Rall were the two scouts in Fred’s canoe and they both suffered physical injury from the lightning: Bob’s arms were paralyzed and Gary’s legs. Fred was killed instantly.

After Fred died, Chuck Borgeson and Duane, the guide from a companion group, took his body to the ranger station (see Bobby’s account, too). I must have gone into shock, because I went to sleep later that morning and slept until the next day. We, of course, cut the trip a short from what was planned originally, but not by much, because there wasn’t an easy way just to exit from such a remote location.

Aftermath

The accident was reported in Texas newspapers as “lightning strikes Scout group, at least one killed.” Naturally, our parents were distraught, but unable to learn much about what had happened for several days. This was well before cell phones and we had no portable radio.

It’s sobering to realize that I was the only one other than Fred holding on to the rock just before the lightning struck. If I hadn’t let go to pull my poncho, all 12 of us might have died, because it would have completed an electrical circuit connecting all our aluminum canoes.

We managed to complete the trip without further mishap, but aspects of it are still vivid for me today. After the wilderness experience, we went to Winnipeg and found a restaurant that offered all-you-can-eat lunches for 49 cents. After two weeks of vigorous exercise and eating our own cooking of dehydrated potatoes, we were hungry beyond any measure a restaurant should have to endure. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that we put them out of business.

References

Coalson, Bob. The Fred Moyer incident. Post 52 history: Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base.

Olson, Sigurd F. (1963, September). Relics from the rapids. National Geographic, 124(3), 412-435.