I have tried to gather a few different perspectives on what it feels like to die or go through the process of dying, including my lengthy interview with Michael March just prior to his death not long after I met him online. Below, I present a different perspective entirely from Claire Wineland, a Cystic Fibrosis patient who had been advocating about her disease for quite some time. It is a video I found on YouTube that she uploaded a while back, explaining her own experience with technically dying on a number of occasions from complication arising from her disease. Continue reading Dying, Redux
Let’s get one thing straight: emotions do not cause disease. The fault of your physical illness very likely lies with something other than you. The whole notion that anything from kidney stones to cancer could be traced back to an emotional block, repressed anger, wrongs un-righted, or any other random psychological hurt from this life or a past one, is so corrupt that it should never be given credence by any rational being. Yet throngs of people with well-intentioned sounding titles like “life coach” or “healer” spread these malicious little bits of victim blaming as if they were offering salvation in a bottle of snake oil.
That said, I want it to be clear that not everyone who identifies as a healer is guilty of either victim blaming or willfully misleading those who they are trying to help. I’ve known incredibly sincere, warm, compassionate people who do their absolute best to improve the health and well-being of others through a wide swath of tools and approaches, arguably with strong results. And, frankly, many people need some form of guidance in their lives and have relied successfully on many such “coaches” to get where they need to be. I’m not condemning whole industries or forms of practice or even job titles here; this isn’t about valid occupations, but rather about those who choose to exploit the fears and insecurities of patients under the guise of offering miraculous cures through attitude adjustment. Continue reading Emotional Illness
We all know — or we should all know — that lung cancer is one of the biggest killers in our society. With an estimated average of 433 people dying every day from some form of this disease, there is no question as to why it is considered such a horrifying diagnosis. Lung cancer kills more than any other cancer, and more than its three closest competitors in the cancer arena combined. If there were cancer cage matches, lung cancer would win virtually every time based on the sheer volume of its devastation and mayhem. Yet, in spite of receiving only a fraction of the research funding that other cancers get, a surprising number of treatments have emerged to help lung cancer patients outlive their initial prognosis.
But you have lung cancer! You’re expected to die. And, by the way, you’re expected to die quickly (and brutally). That is what the common narrative tells us.
Lung cancer treatment has made amazing bounds over the past decade. For a growing number of patients, living with Stage IV lung cancer is no longer an immediate death sentence, if a death sentence at all. For some of them, especially those diagnosed “earlier” in the Stage IV spectrum, while there are still a few months to alternate between treatments to find what works, or for those lucky enough to have an actionable mutation, even this advanced type of lung cancer can be treated as a chronic illness instead of a fatal one. Earlier and better diagnoses have led to younger and healthier patients having a chance to engage in this challenge before their cancer has beaten them down from within, and they have brought a new level of perseverance to the process. Continue reading The Overstayed Welcome
It all started with a pain in my back. I was a mess. Every day, the pain grew and spread until it ran down my entire left leg and shot up into my chest. What I had hoped might be a simple pinched nerve turned out to be the result of a new metastasis in the muscle of my lower back, conveniently pressing gently up against the sciatic nerve like a feather made of barbed wire attached to a cattle prod.
To treat this nasty beast, the only practical solution was to zap it with radiation — something that I could barely wait to begin doing. By the time this was presented as an option, I was in such agony that surgery would have been appealing. Radiation, by comparison to virtually anything else, sounded like a relief. Continue reading Radiation and Me, A Love Story
Christmas morning, the family was gathered in the living room making quick work of the presents under the tree. French toast was going into second servings and mine was fresh in the pan, filling my mouth with anticipation. Then my wife noticed the old woman on the sidewalk outside our window.
She had been pushing a shopping cart up the hill we live on. At first, it was hard to ascertain what she was up to; the cart was empty, she seemed to be well put together, her head was wrapped in a clean scarf and she carried a purse that looked barely used. But she was clearly struggling with the incline. Still in my pajamas, I slipped on a pair of moccasins and stepped out to see how — and what — she was doing. Continue reading A Christmas Story
The past few days have been interesting, in the way that might make a person both sad and angry, and hopefully also touch into a compassionate spot. After a lot of attention had been given to the hurricanes that battered our nation last month, highlighting both the devastation of nature and human resilience, it seemed that we were due a period of celebration. Instead, music icon, Tom Petty, died (prematurely reported, retracted, and ultimately, with some finality, reported again). And just before that, on the last night of a big music festival in Las Vegas, a so-called “lone wolf” gunman managed to use a stash of roughly 20 weapons (at least some of which were modified to be more deadly) to kill in the neighborhood of 60 innocent people, wounding hundreds of others. He did this from a hotel room in a very fancy casino across the street, using long-range rifles. It’s enough to get a person ruminating on mortality. As if living with stage 4 lung cancer wasn’t enough.
Before I get too self-indulgent, however, I should put my thoughts into perspective. Death doesn’t bother me so much; I do not hold onto a fear of dying and I cannot recall a time when I did. But I do have a deep and consistent anger about enabled murder, preventable deaths and injuries (both physical and psychological), and the lack of public will to address the underlying issues that allow such things to continue happening. And in that regard, I suppose, I do have a fear of getting shot. In almost 50 years, I’ve been lucky enough to have been directly threatened with a gun only once — but I’ve still been threatened with a gun. It is hard not to think about these things when a mass shooting happens just a few blocks away from where you had been lying poolside about a month earlier. Continue reading Some Thoughts on Death and Dying
It has been over two weeks since I began taking my new drug, afatinib. Over two weeks of feeling good, feeling like the chemo has been thoroughly flushed from my system even as I have diligently taken these new pills, feeling the best that I have in three years. I have been keeping a journal this time, chronicling how my body is responding each day, trying to pave the way for a better understanding of how to live with this new treatment. For the first week, anyway, it almost seemed like it was going to be too easy.
There are two weeks of video updates on my Patreon feed, talking about how great I feel and wondering how bad the side effects will be once they really kick in. I had been prepped by my oncologist that it was very likely that I would experience worse side effects than I had with the chemo I had been taking. This was based on how well I tolerated pemetrexed, the chemotherapy drug that had kept my cancer at bay for so long, but not so much on patients in general having a particularly tough time on afatinib. Which is not to suggest that I expected a walk in the proverbial park with this new drug.
Still, the first week was amazing. It was almost like I was taking nothing at all. Sure, there was some digestive stuff going on, but nothing outside of the realm of what I would have been used to in a previous life if I decided to live off of bean burritos for a few weeks. And I love a good burrito, so it would be worth it. But by day eight, I realized that the side-effects of the drug were presenting themselves quite visibly. Continue reading Spoiler Alert: Side-Effects Show Up
As long-time readers know, I take issue with a number of high-profile “wellness warriors” and anti-science advocates who claim to offer “natural,” “holistic,” or simply “alternative” treatments that can cure cancer or prevent it entirely. Chief among these are Chris Wark and Ty Bollinger, two people with absolutely no scientific or medical training and tons of bad advice. They are part of a large network of disreputable and largely discredited hucksters, many of whom get by on their claims by offering just the tiniest shred of truth mixed in with their hyperbole and insidious messages. They thrive in our increasingly anti-intellectual culture, where headlines and sound bytes sway their customers and their “fan base” into believing that there is substance to their messages. This is why, more than ever, it is essential to take a critical approach to all the medical headlines that are presented, and especially those making extraordinary claims.
The well-established and professionally vetted website, Healthline, has a very good primer on the subject of spotting fake medical news. It could hardly be more topical. There is nary a day that goes by when some website or other isn’t making absurd claims about the latest health craze or danger. Whether it is bloating the risks of GMO foods or misrepresenting the cancer risk from eating red or processed meat, there are more sources out there in the ether intent upon cherry picking data or simply removing it from context in order to sell their point than there are serious outlets for the reporting of science news. Part of the problem with this is that science news isn’t usually considered very sexy or commercial, but a bigger problem is that it is generally difficult for most people to fully understand.
And capitalizing on that, we have opportunists like Chris Wark, a self-proclaimed guru on defeating cancer without chemotherapy. Duly note, of course, that Mr. Wark was cured through surgical intervention and, while chemotherapy was recommended as an adjunctive treatment to lower the risk of future metastasis, there was no indication that he had any actual, existing metastases that needed treatment. To put it bluntly, he was one of the lucky colon cancer patients who had it all taken out without any recurrence. This had nothing to do with whether or not he received chemotherapy, and there is no way of knowing how he would have responded to such treatment or whether his “lifestyle” choices have had any bearing whatsoever on his post-surgical health. Continue reading Common Sense, Clarity and Wellness Warrior Lies
Why is Critical Thinking important?
Arguably, we live in a time when it has become increasingly important to carefully parse data, even, as it turns out, in casual conversation and friendly communication. The rampant spread of misinformation in the Age of Social Media is nothing new. Conspiracy Theorists and intentional hoaxsters have been an ever-more-apparent online presence since the rise of newsgroups. Even in those near-forgotten days of Lost History prior to our every moment getting logged for “posterity” in the cloud, we had plenty of access to active (and more easily identifiable) paper sources of deliberate misdirection ranging in credulity from The Weekly World News to The National Inquirer — publications finding a non-ironic insurgency in recent years as their online brethren like NaturalNews, InfoWars, and WorldNewsDaily have added to the fodder for the less-Luddite paranoid contingent.
For the sake of reason, it is essential for all of us to adhere to certain standards of Critical Thinking. Just for purposes of general, civil communication, we should all want a basic, coherent understanding of the facts of our world. Philosophical differences aside, it should be a simple task to understand the foundations of science and recognize pseudo-scientific rhetoric as what it is; it should be easy enough to discount rigorously anti-intellectual arguments and logical fallacies
Lately, I have written a few posts on critical thinking and promised an interview on the topic. Although I recorded this some weeks back, I have finally delivered on the promise to upload it.
Logical Fallacies, the Enemy of Critical Thought
Following are a few fun pages that list logical fallacies. They present them differently, so it is worth visiting a few of the sites to get a feel for how they lay them out or categorize them, but generally speaking, they cover a lot of the same ground. Enjoy the journey!
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My recent post on dealing with change and adversity was inspired in no small part by a change I am facing in my own life, one rife with uncertainty and heavy with anticipation. The last CT scan I had showed that my primary tumor, the one by which we gauge progression or lack thereof, was still within the technical boundaries of business as usual. That is to say, its lateral dimensions had not changed significantly since the previous scan, and overall had not grown enough over the similar measurements from a year or two years ago to precipitate anxiety. But CT scans are, for lack of a better term, a bit fuzzy. The images are fairly clear, but the data is difficult to measure with absolute precision.
Because CT scans are essentially three-dimensional, but are viewed on two-dimensional screens, comparisons between scans are inherently imprecise. The angle of a subject’s body, how inflated the lungs were, the position of the subject within the imagining chamber, all figure into subtle differences between the final scans. On top of that, because the images are basically multitudes of cross-sectional snapshots, a comparison must be made by selecting the closest approximation to the “same” image between scans from different times. I’ve looked at lots of these — in fact, I keep digital copies of all my scans for reference or posterity — and I’ve used the tools to line up and measure my tumor as best I can.
And in two dimensions, at the standard viewing cross-sectional approximation, my mass looks very similar from scan to scan, every three or so months since this process began. My chemotherapy was clearly doing what it was intended to do, which was to prevent progression of the disease. Progression is generally defined in terms of the length of the tumor, but we all know that tumors are bundles of cells that grow and change along more than just one axis.
I was never under any illusion that the chemo would cure me — there is no official cure for Stage 4 Lung Cancer. Any time that the chemotherapy could afford me by maintaining stasis has been considered a luxury and at over two and a half years on this particular regimen, I have been the longest continuous success case that many on my medical team have known. So the next time I see most of them will be a special, bitter-sweet occasion.
Because the time for change has come. Continue reading Chemo and I Had a Pretty Good Run