There's a book going around my circle of friends called The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. B read it a couple of weeks ago. Then we went to a party over the weekend, and another woman started talking about it -- she'd read it too and really loved it. B had the book with her, because she had borrowed it from another person who happened to be at this party and she was going to return it. Instead, one of the guys got interested, so he ended up taking home the book to read.
I have not read it. I have no interest in reading it. I don't know why anyone would want to read it. It's all about cancer.
Nevertheless, I was curious and wanted to know what was so great about the book. First of all, B told me, it's really well written. Dr. Mukherjee was a Rhodes scholar; he works as a cancer physician at Columbia University; and the book won a Pulitzer prize. He weaves in the history of cancer, the experiences of patients, the struggle of doctors to find a cure, along with the science of cancer and how it works.
So, do they know how it works? I asked.
Not really, she said. They've made many discoveries, and developed a number of weapons in the battle against cancer. But after reading the book, it doesn't seem to B that they're anywhere near finding a cure for cancer.
She reported that they have made more progress on some cancers, less on others. For example, they have found a cure for the blood cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma, not because they know how the cancer works, but because they figured out how this particular cancer is spread and how to stop it. As she knows, my brother died of Hodgkin's lymphoma, in 1964. Coincidentally, one of my daughter's best friends contracted Hodgkin's lymphoma a couple of years ago. She had some treatments, including chemotherapy. She temporarily lost her hair. But in the end she was cured. She is now a medical resident at a hospital in New York.
But that's one of the reasons why I do not want to read this book. I already know that Hodgkin's lymphoma is now curable, when before, it wasn't. Do I really want to read all about how the disease that killed my brother, and almost destroyed our family when I was a teenager, is now a perfectly curable malady that is, yes, an inconvenience, but no longer a death sentence.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad they've made progress on cancer and found a cure for Hodgkin's. I'm happy for those people like my daughter's friend who contract the disease today, and live to tell the tale. And I think it's really great that my daughter's friend is now a doctor -- and that she recently got married. But do I want to have my nose rubbed in it?
My whole family has a history of cancer. We have strong hearts. But my mother got breast cancer in her 50s, and ultimately died of cancer, although she managed to soldier on until age 89. My dad also died of cancer, although, again, not till late in life. And one of my sisters has had breast cancer. I figure that cancer is gonna be what gets me in the end. My time will come, eventually. Do I want to wallow in the details now? I don't think so.
The woman who started talking about the book at the party, who thought it was a masterpiece, is younger than I am. She's only 50. But she herself has had breast cancer. She found the book riveting, she wants to study cancer and find out all she can about the disease. I think she feels that it empowers her.
Not me. I'd start in on the book, and I'd be reading about cancer symptoms, and I guarantee you, when I lie down to go to sleep at night, I'd start feeling a pain in my chest or a lump in my throat, and I would absolutely convince myself that I have cancer, probably a very advanced stage of a very aggressive cancer, and that I'll be undergoing chemotherapy within a week, and I'll soon be weak and emaciated, with scars zippering my chest, and no hair on my head, and weighing in at about 95 pounds. Just like my brother.
I didn't explain this whole thing to the breast-cancer survivor who likes this book. I just told her that I didn't want to read the book. I didn't want to know all there is to know about cancer. I want to stick my head in the sand and keep it there for as long as possible.
Look, I'm not in denial. I gave up smoking a long time ago; I eat my antioxidents and avoid the nitrates in bacon and hot dogs. I try to get some exercise, and I've had a couple of colonoscopies thank you very much. I do what I can to avoid cancer. But beyond that, what's the benefit in reading all about the disease and the horrors it brings to people's lives?
I told my friend I wouldn't mind reading a book about heart disease. For me, that's an intellectual exercise. But cancer cuts too close to the bone.
She thought I was crazy. She actually said that, in kind of a friendly but dismissive way, "You're crazy."
Am I crazy?