Diary Entry

Cancer Gadfly: Walking Back and Working Around

One of the rare pleasures of old age is observing new words jump into circulation. Or appear to jump. We might just have been nodding. But thanks to Netanyahu’s political shenanigans we’ve been introduced to “walking back” as a transitive verb to mean what we used to call backpedaling. The prime minister is “walking back” his offensive pronouncements and even the elegant David Remnick doesn’t hesitate to use the word in his New Yorker outrage. The geezers among us might remember the lyrics to the song, “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home…” Now our baby is racist threats.

The cancerites among us have been following the hoopla around targeted therapies for cancer. It’s all about genes and genetic mutations. You just have to get sequenced and presto you can have your very own personalized treatment. I have found myself drooling over the potential of anti-PD1 (I’d try to explain how this works but the Internet does a better job: hint: PD stands for programmed death.) It’s great if your genes happen to fit the available drugs and the trials, a kind of O.K. Cupid for cancer. Alas, it turns out that I’d only be eligible for a trial if my chemo had failed. Which it hasn’t four years in. Should I look forward to my chemo failing?

20crabswim192The big cancer story is soon going to be featured on public television based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-prize winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. From the hype surrounding the documentary it would seem that the Emperor soon will soon be wearing no clothes at all. Targeting genetic abnormalities will win the famous war on the disease. We patients can abandon our IVS and their endless drips.

In “Trying to Fool Cancer” oncologist Mikkael A. Sekeres aims to “walk back” the premature enthusiasm for the genetic mutation theories, observing that a few breakthroughs have  prolonged survival but “haven’t been curative. And we shouldn’t delude ourselves in thinking that standard chemotherapy is a thing of the past. Or that a few more months of life…is a panacea in cancer care.”

It would seem that the gene/drug match fantasy is for now just another “work around.” A “work around,” I’ve recently learned, is a temporary fix, often for computer bugs, that does not meet the challenge of deeper problems.

What does this suggest for the new category of people to which I now belong: people living with cancer, as we used to say “PWA”: People With AIDS? It’s our job to look out for ourselves, making the most of the time that remains, accepting the fact that most of us will not see a cure in our lifetimes.

That’s our “work around.”


Nancy K. Miller. Diary

Welcome. Some musings on my current preoccupations with the worlds of illness and the worlds of books: the vicissitudes of living with cancer and the need, for now, to launch (a k a promote) my new memoir, My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism. Naturally, I inhabit both spaces, which makes for a strangely bifurcated, though far from boring, existence. Click to view both Feminist Friendship Archive and My Metastatic Life projects.

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