Mad Science

Today’s New York Times reports on risks arising from an approach for addressing cancer that’s been considered one of the most promising therapies in decades: immunotherapy.

When I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research a few years ago, reports on the remarkable results of immunotherapy studies were everywhere. That same year, the publication Science named immunotherapy the most promising cancer advancement of the year.

While oncologists and cancer researchers are hesitant to use the word “cure,” more than one expert referred to immunotherapy as the closest to such an outcome they’d seen. While the treatment was (and continues to be) exceedingly expensive, and thus accessible only to a few, researchers had discovered that the immune system “remembers” what cancerous cells look like. As a result, the system responds to uncontrolled cancer replication and the tricky ways in which cancer cells mutate to stay ahead of therapies before the changes happen.

Now, though, the potential drawbacks to the science behind immunotherapy are becoming evident. Tampering with the immune system to make it resistant to whatever ill might come its way can also cause it to attack healthy cells and systems.

As I read the article in the NYT, the phrase “mad science” came to mind. When a finding seems too good to be true, sometimes it is–it just takes time to discover the downside to progress.

I’m hoping that researchers will figure out how to retain the promises of immunotherapy while avoiding the detriments.

Back at the Coop with Edwina

On Thursday, I met Edwina for her doctor’s appointment at Cooper Green, this time with her primary care physician Dr. Hamby. While Edwina hasn’t been feeling well in recent months–during which she’s taken several trips to the emergency room, some in ambulances–she looked happy and healthy.

Edwina, smiling in pink

Edwina, smiling in pink at the Coop.

Edwina was in a great mood, despite her aches and pains.

She asked me to help her send a form to somebody who “was gonna help get [her] some glasses like the ones you wear, Miss Rayan,” so I took a picture of the form and sent it on its way.

We talked about her son, Steve, who seems to be staying out of trouble, and her husband, Tyrone, who can’t say the same.

I filled Edwina in on the trials I’ve been experiencing with my family and with work. She listened intently, nodded her head up and down in agreement that times had indeed been tough, and lifted me up when she said that “God be lookin’ over all y’all, Miss Rayan–your momma and your daddy and even your brother.”

We’re heading back to the Coop again the week after Thanksgiving to see Edwina’s pain doctor. In the meantime, Edwina wants to see Madea’s Halloween. If it’s anything like the Christmas movie featuring Madea, it’s sure to be a rocking night out for the two of us.

My 2nd Act hits Birmingham

Check out local television coverage of My 2nd Act, a stage show about cancer survivorship that hit the stage in Birmingham this past Sunday.

The show offered an emotional mix of voices and I bonded with some remarkable women, from ages 14 to 72. A televised program featuring the show and the backstories of local survivors will be hitting the air in the months to come. Stay tuned for more!

A long walk

On Monday, I left my office and headed to my car after an exhausting rollercoaster of a day.

My brother, about whom I’ve written many times on this blog, has been a patient in a psychiatric ward for the past several weeks following an unfortunate incident in my hometown. On Monday, I learned that he was to be discharged from the ward and sent to a nursing home for care. I was stunned by the news.

Joe is 56 years old, and while he’s spent decades abusing drugs and alcohol which have taken a serious toll on his health, I never expected him to end up in a nursing home so soon. He’s been in and out of rehab centers, jails and prisons, and homeless shelters much of his life. But a nursing home is another thing altogether, a place people go towards the end of their lives when they can no longer function on their own.

Truth be told, I don’t know with certainty how incapacitated my brother is right now. I hope his stay at a nursing home is driven more by the lack of a space in another sort of facility than a testament to how desperate his situation has become. Still, I couldn’t (and still can’t) stop thinking about how my brother got to this point, about all of the years during which–bit by bit–Joe found himself less capable of pulling himself back up when he hit the pavement.

On my way to my car on Monday, I found myself standing next to a homeless man at a stoplight. He asked me how I was, and while I typically would have offered a brief response and forged on, I turned towards him and locked eyes with the man. He looked to be somewhere in his 50s, and his blonde hair had grown into a long tangle that escaped the sides of his worn baseball cap. His cheeks were red and he carried a strong scent of whiskey on his breath.

He and I walked side-by-side for a couple of blocks until I turned off to find my car. And we chatted, about the weather–“still warm in Birmingham”–the day we’d had and where we were heading to next. The man told me that he had a long walk ahead, since he was “going up to Vulcan, up on top of the mountain,” an uphill climb from where the university sits in the valley.

“Have a good one,” I told him.

“You too, Mam,” He replied.

I climbed into my car, thinking about my brother’s fate and how much the man I’d just met reminded me of a gentler Joe, still wandering to an identifiable destination.

“God got you.”

October is the cruelest month, at least for a long-time breast cancer survivor like me who’s sick to death of all the pink and story after story of survival attributed to a can-do attitude. Enough.

A couple of days ago, I was simmering over a segment on the Today show in which Hoda Kotb, a breast cancer survivor, surprised five women who are experiencing the disease with a spa weekend in NYC. While the sentiment was kind enough, two things about the story nagged at me: 1) all of the survivors were middle class white women, reinforcing the narrative from the past 50+ years that breast cancer is a disease of privileged women (despite mounds of research revealing the extreme disparities in diagnosis, treatment, and survival rates depending on the socioeconomic and racial identity of women), and 2) all that pink–the women were picked up in a pink limo, wrapped in pink boas, and whisked away to a makeshift rooftop spa adorned with pink candles, pink flowers, blah, blah, blah.

But when I picked up Helena from softball practice later that afternoon, she showed me a message that she’d sent out to her virtual prayer group (I’m sure the specific technology/social medium has a name, but I have no idea what that would be!). As she read her post aloud, all of my cynicism about breast cancer awareness month faded away:

“So most of y’all know that it is breast cancer awareness month. So I just ask for all of us to be praying throughout this month for people who have and have had breast cancer. This is very personal to me because my mom has had breast cancer twice and has fought it both times. I know that she is a miracle and God helped her survive. I am so blessed that she is in my life and I thank God every single day!”

Sometimes, I forget that those around me, especially my family, are experiencing my struggles with breast cancer right alongside me.

Edwina also made me think twice about my perspective on this month and our journeys through breast cancer. She texted me to ask how I’ve been. We don’t see each other as much as we once did, because Edwina’s new apartment is in a neighborhood that I don’t feel too comfortable wandering into.

We were updating each other on our lives, and I admitted to Edwina that I’ve been feeling run down and haven’t been taking care of myself the way I know I should. That gets me down, and the result is that I get further entrenched in a rut–not eating the right foods, drinking one too many glasses of wine, and favoring television and the couch over the trail near my house.

Edwina responded with three words: “God got you.”

She’s right. I may hate the pink, and the way in which a disease that has affected so many lives has been turned into a fluffy, happy, commercialized onslaught.

But God does have me, my family, Edwina, and the rest of us who struggle with disease, fears, depression, whatever it might be in his sight.


















My 2nd Act

On November 6, I and 9 other female cancer survivors–7 of us from Birmingham–will be presenting our stories of survival in a stage show called My 2nd Act (M2A). Cancer survivors from other parts of the country, from Nashville to Chicago to Raleigh, have also reached audiences through M2A to reveal the triumphs and struggles that follow a diagnosis of breast, ovarian, brain, colon, or any other type of cancer that knocks a survivor down before she figures out how to get back up again and create a new, albeit revised, life for herself.

One particularly cool feature of our stage show is that it’s being taped for a television documentary. More details to come!

I invite anyone who is interested in supporting the Women Survivors Alliance, the organization that benefits from ticket sales and other charitable donations, to join us on the 6th of November!


A new life in Bangalore

One of my favorite destinations in India is the city of Bangalore. It’s a bustling place, and the streets are filled with young people, many of them the company representatives on the other end of the line when we Americans call Dell or another U.S.-based corporation.

Today’s New York Times features a story about how some of those working in industries in Bangalore make their way there and some of the difficulties they face:

The article tells the story of Prabhati and Shashi Das, among others, who travel from their small village in the Northeast portion of India to Bangalore, a southern city some 33 hours away by train, to work. Life in Bangalore is, unsurprisingly, quite different than life in a small Indian village, where young women are protected by their families from men so that they may remain chaste (and just as importantly, be perceived as chaste) until an arranged marriage to an eligible bachelor who agrees to the family’s dowry. In the city, village girls like the Das sisters are often vulnerable to temptations with which they have no prior experience.

I learned about women in Prabhati and Shashi’s shoes when I interviewed the publisher and editor of Woman’s Era, a women’s magazine published in New Delhi. The target audience includes women who often find themselves in temporary working environments in a city like Bangalore, women who might be exposed to modern ways, modern fashion, and modern relationships.

An underlying message conveyed to readers of Woman’s Era is to remember that their reputations must remain intact for the time when they return to their villages to marry.