Monday, March 30, 2015

Why Everyone on the Planet Should Read or Watch ‘Emperor of All Maladies’

I speak at George Mason University every semester. Professor K invites me to share my story with students in her men’s health and human sexuality classes. My memoir is now part of the curriculum for the men’s health class, and Professor K’s students were required to read it and submit questions for when I visited two weeks ago.

Are you still friends with your friends from the book, like Worm?

Absolutely! Though Worm moved to Leesburg which is an hour away and may as well be in a different state.

Is your left ball still big?

Yep! I have a hydrocele that doesn’t affect me. It’s just there.

How do you feel about cancer now?

Cancer has killed some of my friends and recurred in others. Some friends are living with it forever. For some, there is no treatment. These friends despise every aspect of cancer.

I am nearly 12 years cancer-free from my second cancer. Despite the odds against this, I am very healthy and don’t have debilitating late effects that require daily attention. I am free to spend my time however I want. I feel fortunate for this. Every morning I look at my tattoo in the mirror and say a prayer giving thanks. Cancer has given me a different perspective and I can’t imagine not having that.

Do you think your parents played a role in your survival?

Yes. So did the amazing doctors and nurses, who are so good at their jobs because they have to be, because their margin for error is sometimes zero. And so did the people who paved the way for the treatments I received.

The mascot of the astrological sign, Cancer, is the crab

I read the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer three years ago. Emperor tracks the history of cancer in people since the Egyptians first recorded it thousands of years ago. Cancer has always developed in people.

Emperor explains the beginning of modern cancer treatment including when scientists discovered that radiation kills cancer cells but they didn’t understand that healthy tissue could only tolerate so much radiation. This led to total destruction. Emperor details the beginning of treatment for children with leukemia. Since all the kids would die anyway—by bleeding out through orifices or other horrific ways—doctors could try different treatments on them. Those doctors and patients and their families sacrificed lives to reach viable and successful treatment we see today, including five-year survival rates at about 90 percent for some forms of leukemia.

Emperor taught me about the chemotherapy drugs I received and how they were discovered, and about my cancers and how the cells evaded my immune system. Cancer cells are so remarkable that I wonder how anyone can be healthy and cancer-free 12 years later.

One of my favorite organizations is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I am proud to participate with LLS, which I started doing last year through Man & Woman of the Year and will continue indefinitely. I even love its motto Someday is Today, a hopeful statement that together we can find a cure soon.

I’ll keep hoping with LLS because hopefulness is one of humanity’s greatest assets. I’ll also keep consuming pounds of vegetables, eating foods with a low glycemic index, and restricting my calories because these are supposedly among my best assets for preventing cancer. Even if part of me thinks cancer will never go away in people and the difference between having cancer and not having it is almost entirely random.

Last week I was invited to the sneak peak of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a film spanning three nights based on the book, on PBS beginning tonight at 9 p.m. ET. The sneak peak began with the narrator saying, “More will die from cancer over the next two years than died in combat in all the wars the United States has ever fought, combined.”

Cancer is the supreme king of disease as millions of people fight to escape its rule, and The Emperor of All Maladies tells this story. The book is among the best I’ve read and the film, presented by Ken Burns, promises to be eye-opening.


Do you worry about getting cancer again?

No. I live a healthy lifestyle and am forever striving to better myself. If something catastrophic were to happen then I’d know I did everything that I could. I live without regrets.

2 comments:

Bullseye said...

Episode 1 was both fascinating and informative. I will certainly watch episodes 2 and 3.

Benjamin Rubenstein said...

The film is excellent and there are no commercials. If people miss it this week then they can view it online through PBS, I think.