Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Many Causes, No Cures

“Do you smoke,” asked The New Doctor (TND).  I said no, I quit some 15 years ago when I gave up my beloved pipes, tampers, tobacco pouches, reamer, two kinds of tobaccos mixed just so, and the little fuzzy wire and fabric cleaners you can wrap around a finger and make into springs, to the delight of all children. So no, I don’t smoke. Good, he said, because we both knew that a prime cause of bladder cancer is either tar or nicotine, or both. (This being said, like with people who get lung cancer 20 years after quitting, the damage may already have been done.)

He guided the scope gently and said, “Ah,” which is never good. “There are recurrences. Do you want to see them?” Not really, but I looked at the overhead monitor anyway. Yes, here and there, several small areas that were no longer a healthy pink but instead seemed to have mold on them. So that’s what cancer looks like? Bathroom mold? How mundane, how quotidian and not good. Not good at all. “And there seems to be an area over here that looks abnormal as well. Well, we’ll have to do a biopsy again. At the hospital, I suppose.” He stripped off his sky blue latex gloves. “I’m glad you don’t smoke.”

It takes me a few days to wonder why he doesn’t ask about other agents either known or believed to cause the disease.  Cell phones, second-hand smoke, smog, sugar substitutes like Equal and Certa and whatever the stuff in pink packages is called. What about caffeine and red meat and irradiated vegetables? Tomatoes sprayed to look redder and bananas large enough to colonize small nations? Stress-causing bureaucrats and gridlock? Well, perhaps not the last two…

I drink several cups of very strong decaf coffee a day, and sweeten them with the artificial yellow stuff. I cook simple foods—stews, rice dishes, omelets, whole wheat pasta. Could any of these have caused my cancer’s resurgence? And what of the hours I spend each day before a computer screen that, I suppose, may emit death rays I am not even aware of. What of the 35-inch flat screen television set? The Boze radio, the iPad and Kindle and Sony laptop? The airport scanners and magnetic anti-theft gizmos in the entrances of stores? Those new light-bulbs that look like coiled snakes and the traffic cameras and radar guns? And of course all the plastic and Styrofoam containers that keep our food safe from microbes and other pollutants.

I have mentioned all of these items—and there are a lot more of their ilk—because at one point it was widely held they might be cancer-causing. In some cases, the jury is still out. Cell phones have not been around long enough to make definitive studies, but even meat grilled over charcoal on an outdoor barbecue is thought to have potentially nasty side-effects and we really have no clear idea, cancer-wise, of what a long-term fast-food diet might imply.

Me, (a little humor here, be warned) I’d be tempted to say the list should include people who say “You know” a lot, Asian ladies who turn left in front of me without signaling, men shod in sandals in winter, and any woman wearing a full burka while shopping at Victoria’s Secret.

I suppose my point is that really, we have no idea what causes what. It would be easy to blame any appurtenance of modern-day life but probably foolish to do so. We do know that, according to Third World Network (TWN), an independent non-profit international organization, “During the past 20 years, at least 30 new diseases have emerged, for many of which there is no treatment, cure or vaccine, or the possibility of effective prevention or control.” Additionally, the inappropriate use of antibiotics “has resulted in increased antimicrobial resistance and is seriously threatening drug control strategies against such common diseases as tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, dysentery and pneumonia.”

And while there has been a slight decrease in cancer-related deaths between 2004 and 2008, other forms of the disease are on the upswing: there are been a marked increase in oropharyngeal, esophageal and HPV-linked cancers; liver, thyroid, pancreatic and kidney cancers, melanoma and head and neck cancers, particularly among the poor. According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts and Figures, in 2012 an estimated 1,640,000 cancer cases were reported, with an estimated 577,000 deaths. Damn. That’s a lot of cancer, and in a very weird way, it makes me feel better to know I’m just a statistic and not the object of vengeful karma. But only the tiniest bit better.

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