I’m afraid there will be a cure for cancer.
Except no, that’s not really it. In truth, I’m afraid of what a cure for cancer will do to me, and to Kat.
After my mom died of breast cancer in 2003, I gritted my teeth at news stories of promising new cancer treatments. I’d think to myself, If a cure is coming soon, why couldn’t it have come sooner? As, I’m sure, the parents of polio victims asked themselves, when the vaccine came into being.
Word came recently that the FDA is fast-tracking a novel treatment for glioblastoma, based on genetically modified polio virus. Initial trials have been so effective, they’re opening it up to as many as possible.
And I remember reading about this treatment, which had worked in a single case, two years ago, as our daughter was treated for glioblastoma. We tried to get access to the treatment, tried to get into a study or just be given a sample to administer, and were denied. Twice. They wouldn’t let us try it on a little girl with multiple tumors, when it had only been successfully tried on an adult with a single tumor. That door was closed to us.
So the experimental treatment we tried wasn’t a modified polio virus. It was something else. It was something promising. It didn’t work.
I know this polio treatment, as much as we wanted it then and as promising as it looks now, may come to nothing. So many other treatments have before. I remember the every-other-year drumbeat of “Is This The Cure For Cancer?” headlines and magazine covers—all about novel, promising approaches that nobody remembers now, because they didn’t work as it seemed like they might.
“A cure for cancer is the next great breakthrough in medicine, and it always will be,” I sometimes joke, a little bleakly. But then, that’s what they used to say about polio itself. About smallpox. About wound infections.
I read that story about the treatment we’d begged them to let us try, and how it looked like it might cure the cancer we could not, and sick grief ached anew in my chest. I thought, What if this really works, and we failed to get it for her? What if I could have called that doctor again, begged and pleaded, and somehow gotten him to say yes that time, and saved Rebecca’s life? Will I ever forgive myself if the cure was there all along, and I was too weak or blind to force it into our hands?
I still don’t know the answer.
I don’t want brain cancer to remain uncured. I don’t want any cancer to remain uncured. I don’t want other families to suffer what we and so many other families have suffered. There is much I would give to bring about that day, even though it comes too late for my mother, and for my daughter. There is much I have given, in many senses, to try to bring about that day.
When that day comes, if it ever comes, even if it’s just for one type of cancer, celebrate all the lives that will be saved. Feel that joy and relief. But also spare a moment of compassion for all the lives that were lost, and all the lives that were broken. Especially for the ones who died just before the cure came, the ones who mourn both their absence and the could-have-been that came so close.
Until that day comes, if it ever comes, spare a thought for those who live sick with dread and desperate hope, wishing and praying for a breakthrough to save their loved ones.
Spare another for those who live in dread of that day, and hate that they do.