Why cancer makes me happy

OK, quick disclaimer: Cancer only makes me happy in some ways at some times, but that’s a better score than from many other activities I know about. At other times cancer/chemo varies from unpleasant to horrible. Along that line, it has at least given me a better, embodied understanding of what other people with cancer and chemo go through.

But let me say what those “some ways at some times” actually are. How could they emerge through the fog of fear, pain, loneliness, uncertainty, and the literal mental fog of cancer/chemo, not to mention little things like nausea, constipation, loss of hair, appetite, sleep, swimming, and social life?

Look to this day

Well, one huge happiness making of all this is that it puts the rest of life in a good perspective. The great Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa wrote that we should

Look to this day for it is life
the very life of life.

In its brief course lie all
the realities and truths of existence the joy of growth
the splendor of action
the glory of power.

For yesterday is but a memory And tomorrow is only a vision. But today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day….

I memorized that poem long ago, and tried at times to live its precepts. But it took cancer to teach me what it really means. All of those minor annoyances and anxieties that used to clutter my days now dissolve into the mist.

It’s like the drama on a Netflix show: While watching it can seem incredibly important, but even the pause button puts it in its place.

Connection

Another thing I’ve long known, but not absorbed (too many examples of this to count) is the importance of connection to family, friends, acquaintances, even strangers. John Donne’s Meditations contains another passage which I memorized, but failed to understand fully:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The cancer has caused me to reconnect with old friends and family. I’ve learned about weddings, births, and deaths, new jobs and houses. Let me be clear: I could have reconnected with any of those people anytime. But I didn’t.

It took cancer/chemo to wake me up to one of life’s simple truths. So much for reading many books and getting a PhD!

Courage

I never thought of myself as timid. Awkward yes, and fumbling, but often more fool hardy than frightened. (There was that time when my partner and I canoed over a dam backwards. She sensibly thought we should turn back and I wanted to push ahead. That led us to turn sideways, then go in full reverse. But that’s another story.)

Cancer/chemo has taken away needless fears. I have a relaxed attitude about many things now and a willingness to take risks that I didn’t have before. But it’s not in an aggressive way. I’d actually be less likely to want to go over a dam backwards, but I’d be less fretful about it if I thought it were necessary.

Learning

It’s almost embarrassing to says this, but cancer/chemo is a great learning opportunity.

The experience certainly concentrates the attention and there is so much to learn about cancer, therapy, the body, chemicals, new technologies, the medical system, and more. Each new side effect, as unpleasant as it might be, also opens up doors to new ways of understanding the body and world I live in.

Priorities

Echoing Kalidasa, cancer/chemo has helped me prioritize what I do, in a way that makes happier.

I used to play piano to get ready for a lesson, or because I somehow thought I should. Now i do it because I love the music and love bringing my fingers into that. Like David Sudnow, I see that the “ways of the hand” are a miracle to savor.

Moreover, I make the time for piano that I want. I’ve stopped doing many things that once seemed necessary––they weren’t really.

Peace

A major concern for cancer is depression. The fear, the pain, the loneliness, are a recipe for getting depressed or anxious. But I’ve oddly been less so than I was pre-cancer.

I’m not in denial. That would be hard to do anyway. What I think is going on is that cancer/chemo has helped me do what I ought to have been doing all along. I’m focusing on things that matter and shoving aside the rest.

Patience

Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet says this well:

Patience is not sitting and waiting. It is foreseeing. It is looking at the thorn and seeing the rose, looking at the night and seeing the day. Lovers are patient and know that the moon needs time to become full.

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.