03 May 2013

Science Wrapped in Hope

new growth = hope.  Grand Army Plaza.
I remember sitting with my sister and mom in a small hospital room, watching one of her four oncologists enthusiastically manipulate digital images on a computer screen, demonstrating the scope, dimension and aggressiveness of cancer cells that had spread into her spine and brain, indicating that the road ahead would be treacherous.  The most minuscule measurements opened up vistas of theoretical possibilities and in my own mind, there was the paradoxical pull toward what humans and science can know about the body and then, of course, the ethical dimension of what it means to subject oneself hypotheses, research and experimentation when the fundamental concern is survival.

So it goes.  I could see Mom begin to lose her agency at that moment, become a figure in a greater fight to cure cancer.  Her body a vessel, if sacred, in the pursuit of a truth that may save a future life but likely not hers.   She was always a very giving person; but it was never fully clear to us whether her willingness to subject herself to the last blasts of radiation and chemotherapy were her selfless contributions to the furtherance of human progress, a fear of death, or, perhaps, another season of baseball.  She never really said.

In April and May she crumbled, hobbled to her 79th birthday lunch a year ago today, quit her therapy soon thereafter following an incomprehensibly brutal reaction to the chosen chemicals' decimating onslaught, folded herself up in her bed, and finally let us make life comfortable for her as she spent June and July preparing to die.

These thoughts came rushing back to me yesterday reading Gina Kolata's health report in the Times about cancer research--the tracking of genetic patterns, the hope for new conclusions, innovative therapies, the possible extension of life on the way to a cure.  

I'll admit that there were moments, sitting in those rooms, pushing Mom through the antiseptic hallways, reading signs on the faces of oncological nurses and doctors and social workers, that we were mere puppets in a vast science fair, pressed like specimens between two glass slides, pinned against our will under the peering lens of a high powered microscope.  A plurality of powerlessness; in a word:  "statistics."

On the other hand, the body is nature and science is nature and everything comes from somewhere, even the toxic tools coursing through veins in apheresis labs across the country are nature, as it were, and so the other experiment going on was the unbridled determination of human research attempting to save and extend life precisely because it is precious, even sacred.

In this cool but glorious spring, with New York blooming in ways it seems I've never quite seen it bloom before, the trees seem to hold a clue to what I can only describe as the inexorable march of life that insists on moving, growing, spreading, reaching to a place beyond.  Cancer grows in its evil mutations, to be sure; but one cannot deny that it grows.  And in fighting the growth we array the forces of science, innovation and ingenuity to inhabit its growth, stop it even, so that other growth, the good mutations, can continue to thrive.  It's an endless battle, heroic even.  Where we fight for the underdog; where you hope for the good guys to win.  It's a classic struggle, cliche even.  Just the kind of story Mom loved.

The 49 year old with leukemia, whose life I'm trying to save because our stem cells match, made it through the winter.  But next week he needs white blood cells from me so it's back to the machine for a few hours, needles in my arms, a centrifuge humming in a clean lab, singing its machinated song of hope.

I kept wondering all April what I'd have given Mom for her 80th birthday today and realized just now what it would be:  white blood cells for a man neither of us have ever met.  Genetic material and science wrapped in hope.

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