Hearing the words “my oncologist” uttered side by side and what’s more by my own voice has been the most shocking phrase of my lexicon over the past month.
At age 39 turning 40, in what I believed to be, the prime of my health, I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be using these words in what has become my daily conversation with family and friends.
On the day I received the piece of paper from that first gynecologist who saw me, where the words “confirmation of carcinoma” appeared, her parting advice to me was:
“Don’t look at the internet.”
Talk about falling on deaf ears!
I have a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry! The treatments of today were research projects of my university days 20 years ago. How could I not look at the internet and revisit my molecular biology textbooks?
I remember my classmates and I had been placed in topic-related groups. Some had to research allergies, for example. I was put with Rachel H and Stephen R and our topic was “Programmed Cell Death and Cancer”. Hah!
At that time, the study of cancer, oncology, was not included in the secondary school biology programme. I was a complete novice when it came to knowledge about cancer. So I was approaching my studies about programmed cell death with completely fresh eyes and holding no pre-conceived notions about the disease.
I read with great fascination the details about how at microscopic level, even a healthy cell goes through a cycle of birth, division and then death, all beautifully turned on and switched off by our own genes.
That is until, disease sets in, and most inevitably over time, mechanisms go awry upsetting that exquisitely tailored control of the cell cycle, and they stop dying. The cells continue to grow uncontrollably and if they take on other characteristics such as the ability to infiltrate other healthy cells, for example, then it becomes cancer.
Twenty years ago, the research of the previous half century, into how cancer cells behave when compared to healthy cells, was being elucidated in the textbooks I was reading at university.
The logical next step in research on cancer was, equipped with a greater understanding of how cancer cells operate at a molecular level, to target their peculiar behaviors and to stop them in their tracks. Chemotherapy has been doing that for a long time. Everybody knows about the obvious side effects of that treatment, so synonymous with cancer; the hair loss, the nausea and vomiting, the fatigue, all caused because while, targeting the annihilation of fast-growing cancerous cells, other healthy fast growing cells also take a hit. Not very clever, not very specific and a most unfortunate accompaniment of cancer treatment, the part which gives the disease such infamy. (And the part which Pablo says he’s going to fix in the future – his latest career choice being medical scientist. Bless little souls.)
In my eyes, the really wonderful advancement in breast cancer treatment, at least, is knowing with breathtaking precision that the tumour expressed in my right breast is somewhat different to the tumour expressed in my cousin’s breast, which is different in turn to that of Belcha’s, a family friend. Therefore I’ll have one cocktail of drugs and accompanying radiotherapy and they’ll have another. There will be aspects of the treatment schedule in common but there are differences too.
Belcha’s tumour profile ten years ago gave a very pessimistic prognosis and three years later, when she was struck by breast cancer, the monoclonal antibodies that I was reading about 20 years ago have probably saved her life!
And these medical scientific breakthroughs represent today’s miracles among others. The capacity to comprehend the world we live in is inexhaustible but the will to improve it based on what we know at the moment is miraculous and a gift from God, in my opinion. We are all touched in different ways.
Finally I can make tiny sense of the biochemistry course that chose me to study it. Because after 2 years I had had enough of it. I was fed up of so much technicality by then. I had wanted to give up those studies and go elsewhere but my father and others around persisted with the idea of finishing. And finish I did, graduated and went on to become a secondary biology teacher.
Oncology has now become integrated into the secondary biology curriculum, at least in Ireland. Year after year, I bullet point the characteristics of a cancer cell and my students and I inevitably enter into discussions on statistics and personal anecdotes. Because, after all, we all know someone who has had cancer and unfortunately many of us also know people who have died from the disease. Hopefully in those short-lived classes, some young mind will be inspired to find out more and fuel the advancements of the future.