Cross posted on my other blog
It’s funny, how over time, if we are lucky, we begin to fill in the nebulously drawn outlines of our character. How we can’t even the tell the person we are becoming without looking backwards and realizing all the little choices we made, how inconsequential they seemed individually, but how they added up to a whole entire person, with a whole real life.
If you would have informed teenage me, or even college me, that someday my job would be to decode heavy scientific language for a lay public, that I would work at a hospital, that I would spend my days with words like oncogenes, ER receptors and biomarker assays, I would probably have laughed in your face. Well, maybe not laughed, perse – I was raised as a politeness girl – but I would have rolled my eyes behind your back, certainly. If I felt comfortable around you, I would have told you I would be either a writer or an actress or maybe a playwrite, that I believed in art for art’s sake, that nothing is more beautiful or necessary than creating art in this ugly world we live in. And I still do, you know, believe in art for its own sake, but I would be hard pressed to consider it more imporant than phase I clinical trials or colonoscopies. I’m developing values, you see.
I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when a writer interviewed me for an article on cancer hospitals. The interview was intended mainly to give him an idea of the way cancer hospitals work but the last question he asked me really flumoxed me. He asked how important I thought it was for the next president to prioritize cancer research by increasing funds available to grant-giving organizations, etc. Everyone working even peripherally in health care knows the government funding cuts are putting a serious hurt on research (not to mention the pesky stem cell problem, to boot). At first, I didn’t know what to answer. How can I say, for instance, that cancer research is more important than diabetes or heart disease investigation? Even though I work for a cancer hospital, who am I to say that this disease deserves more attention than any other? I didn’t know how to verbally fight as an advocate for the work I do.
His question stayed with me (I gave some trite, by the book answer) and I’ve been answering it in my head ever since.
I’ve been in the health care field for two years now, working as a translator between researchers and the public. I actually worked as an administrative assistant in a cancer hospital in North Carolina, while putting S. through graduate school – that is to say, I have a familiarity with this field that extends beyond my current position. As I’ve surfed the early currents of my career, I’ve played around with a multitude of ideas in my head about what my future will hold…the possibility of a ph.d., selling my novel, moving from this field into similar work for the government, eventual foundation work, etc. I am at that point where decisions no longer seem inconsequential – that each one I make, while perhaps not life-altering, is somewhat important. And as I play around with all of these ideas, I keep coming back to this one thing I believe: every person has a right, to feel as good as he or she possibly can, given his or her particular health circumstances. As we move through life – as we age – and if we are lucky, we will age – things will start to change – but every person, man, woman and child – deserves access to the treatment and care that will allow her to feel her best while going through the life she leads. Anything less is a travesty.
I will probably be staying in the health care field for a long, long time.
So, how does this relate to funding for cancer? Actually, it doesn’t. I got sidetracked. I digressed. I apologize. I blog on my lunch break, you know. And this cobb salad is messy. ANYWAY.
How to argue for money extended to cancer research, when almost all health-related research is suffering? I’ve thought and thought about it and I come up with nothing but cliches, so cliches will have to do. This is why the work of cancer researchers is important, and why when we choose our upcoming presidential candidates, we must do so after thorougly examining his or her (how cool is that to write?) stance on health care and cancer care: Because cancer can strike anywhere in the body – from the eyeball to the sinuses to miniscule tip of your pinky toe. Because cancer is often symptomless until it has metastasized (for instance, by the time a malignant lump of some sort appears on your body, the cancer itself has probably been in your system for years). Because people seem to fear cancer in a way other illnesses aren’t feared – despite years of demystifying it still has an almost mythic quality to the diagnosis. Because, unlike so many other diseases, a person can do everything correctly, have no family history, or wonky genetics, and still get cancer. Because cancer is expensive, and lays waste to family finances. A cancer survivor and writer once wrote she put all of her medical bills on a credit card, because debt is so survivable. This is not necessarily true – I have seen families ruined by the cost of caring for a loved one. Because cancer is not equal opportunity – minorities are diagnosed at later stages and receive fewer screening opportunities than their Caucasian counterparts. Beyond those two horrific statistics, your chances of surviving cancer increase exponentially with the strangest elements added into the equation…how much green space you have at your disposal, for instance. Whether or not you have reliable transportation to get yourself to treatment. Because, although I’ve seen cancer survivors on television laud their diagnoses, swearing they didn’t understand what was truly important until they became survivors, I believe that cancer is one of the body’s greatest betrayals, and even if you happen to come out stronger, you lose the person you once were, and the body you once had, to this disease, and it is not the kind of change anyone would request. Because I, for one, despair at the fact that people cannot afford this disease, and so we must attend pancake and spaghettie dinners, bowl-a-thons and chili cookoffs, we must throw our spare change into jars at gas stations and attend walks to raise money for those unfortunate enough to not afford health care. And because I am tired, in a way, of the manipulation…of being encouraged to collect Yoplait yogurt lids and buy certain cereals I don’t like, of being warned to keep my stress level down and pop out a few babies if I want to decrease my chances of female cancers, while we turn a blind eye to the pollution in the air, the additives in our food. We need money for cancer research, and we need to once again allow stem cell research, so we can take care, of this one thing, and turn our attention towards other matters.
And that is how I feel about that.
Like I said so much earlier (I’m near the dregs of my salad, you know – there’s just a bit of bacon left), I truly believe we all have a right to feel the best we possibly can given our circumstances. Ten years ago I probably would never have thought like this – I don’t believe I cared about much beyond what I considered artistic endeavors. Now I at least am beginning to recognize that there is an art to working through illness and there is art in researching ways to cure it – there is an art to treating patients and there is an art in ensuring the wellness of others to the best of your ability.