Small towns

This story on cracked me up:

The authors got it right. Almost everything they listed as “things you only understand if you’re from a small town” was something I could relate to.

One exception, of course:

In my hometown of Clinton, Illinois, our favorite high school pastime/sign of coolness was cruising the town square. In hindsight, it was pretty ridiculous. We’d get together with friends on a weekend night and drive in circles, never actually going anywhere but feeling seen while seeing everyone else from school

No wonder my dad had a fit about the waste of mileage, and time!

Surviving, in context

In August, I’ll be traveling to Poland to interview both urban and rural cancer survivors. Specifically, I’ll be examining how the environment in which Poles live and their ages (as in, did or didn’t they live through Communism) influence their responses to a cancer diagnosis and their expectations for treatment.

One of the places I’ll visit is Mielec. The city now has a population of more than 60,000 and is known for its aviation industry. The history of Mielec, though, is bleak.

During WWII, thousands of Jewish citizens in Mielec were enslaved in a factory building German bombers, while others were sent to concentration camps or massacred on the streets. By the conclusion of the war, few living Jews remained in Mielec, and none were left unscarred by the atrocities they witnessed. Today, there are monuments to those who suffered and markers designating mass graves where Jewish bodies were discarded by the Nazis.

As I’ve learned more about the history of this place, I’ve found myself questioning how much one’s history matters when diagnosed with cancer. Survivors whose lives are rooted in struggle surely face cancer from a different perspective than those whose existence pre-cancer is characterized by relative peacefulness.

Certainly, I have seen how Edwina’s lived experience of poverty, abuse and racism has made breast cancer one among many challenges she has endured. For me, the disease represents a dramatic turning point in my life, one of the first situations, at age 29, no less, in which I had no control to make things right.

I am anxious about visiting a place like Mielec, where so much pain and suffering has occurred. At the same time, I want to know more about how these experiences equip cancer survivors for another difficult journey.

Missing persons

My brother is missing.

He left Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania four weeks ago with a wad of cash (courtesy of Social Security) and an intent to head to Illinois to pay my parents a visit. He never made it there and hasn’t been seen since.

I started getting phone calls a couple of weeks ago, first from a health care representative who wanted to know if I’d heard from Joe. It seems that he is required to check in with the facility since he’s been treated there, and he has done so consistently, until recently.

The last place Joe was seen, Bethesda Mission, had to send back one of his checks from Social Security since he hasn’t checked in to leave a forwarding address or to retrieve it. I’ve known my brother for 52 years, and there’s no way he wouldn’t seek out money intended for him.

Joe could be anywhere: beat up in an alley, lying dead from an overdose in a hotel room, partying with new friends, plotting to hurt family members who have turned on him for “no reason.” I want, need closure, so I’ve put in a phone call to the police department in Harrisburg, PA to file a missing persons report and am waiting for a return call. The officer on duty grilled me about Joe’s residence.

“What’s his address?” he asked me.

“He was at Bethesda Mission, but he’s basically homeless.” I told him.

His response? That it will be hard to track down a homeless person.

No kidding.

To the moon, via the White House

My friend, Jerry Lee, is going to the White House.

I’ve known Jerry for some time through his involvement in the Scientist Survivor Program (SSP) at the American Association for Cancer Research. In 2015, I served as an Advocate Mentor for a group of SSP participants, and Jerry was our Scientific Mentor.

Jerry’s full-time position is at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, where he is Deputy Director of NCI’s Center for Strategic Scientific Initiatives. The role he’ll be stepping into through January 2017 (when a new administration will take the reins) is Deputy Director for Cancer Research and Technologies for the White House Moonshot Task Force under the Executive Office of the Vice President.

During his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama called on VP Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015, to lead a “Moonshot” initiative to eliminate cancer. The White House issued a press release to outline the specifics of this national endeavor:

Scientists, cancer survivors and advocates initially responded harshly to the call, since the metaphor of a “moonshot”–the implication that a single, well-targeted discovery could end all cancer–is naïve and outdated given the knowledge we now have that cancer is a multitude of diseases which continually mutate and evolve. In response to the criticism, VP Biden hit the road to learn more from people who have been studying cancer throughout their careers. His first stop was the NCI.

I can’t imagine a better choice than Jerry to join this Task Force. In addition to being a brilliant scientist, Jerry is passionate about eliminating the pain and suffering of individuals who experience cancer in one form or another.

Go, Jerry!

Patterns of growth

As is common these days, Edwina and I met up last week outside my office. She pulled up in her car and I climbed in to chat for a bit between classes. We’ve learned to find new places to meet, now that I’m hesitant to travel into her neighborhood.

Edwina had contacted me a couple of days before to ask if I had any photos of her pre-chemotherapy.

“Nope,” I told her. “Remember that you were already having chemo treatments when we first met.”

“Oh yeah, I remember now,” she responded.

It turns out that Edwina’s hair has never returned to its pre-treatment texture. Edwina heard about a law suit against a certain drug company that she thinks might apply to her case, granting her some money for the permanent damage to her hair that has affected both the pattern and rate of hair growth. I started to say that maybe a change to her hair might be worth it given the outcome of the treatment–she’s remained cancer-free for more than 5 years–but I stopped myself. I decided I don’t have the right to make that call for her.

Ironically, Edwina’s hair looked amazing when she pulled up. A friend had given her braided hair extensions, and Edwina looked younger than she has in years.

I wish I’d had a camera to take a picture of her the next time she wants to remember what she looked like.

Capturing a Movement

The New York Times reported today that photographer Bob Adelman has died:

I met Mr. Adelman in 2013, when he came to UAB to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. It was his photos of the movement–peaceful protestors being held back with fire hoses and attacked by dogs, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the masses, the Children’s March–that became emblematic of the era. He was a kind and gentle man and could tell a heck of a story about individuals like King (whom he called “Doc”) that most of us know only through history books.

A child bride

This story about a wedding between a girl in the 6th grade and a man twice her age in Bangladesh was painful to read:

During my first trip to India, my colleague Cathleen Cummings and I stood alongside students participating in our study away program as a parade ran through the streets of a small village in Southern India. Atop a flat-bed truck sat a young bride and her groom. While the groom was all smiles, the bride, who couldn’t have been more than 16, looked ahead glumly. Terrified, but resigned to her circumstances.

As the author of this article notes, child brides are supposed to be a thing of the past in India. But traditions die hard, and marriage between young girls and much older men is a practice woven into the fabric of small village life. In this setting, other “former” traditions are still very much alive as well, for example, the status assigned to people according to their family caste.

The photo that leads off the article is telling. Just look in the eyes of the bride.