It’s never a good sign when after an endless battery of tests, a surgeon advises you to prepare for a lengthy course of drastic treatments, saying it will be “at least a year” before you feel you have survived the treatments alone!
My old friend cancer seems to have made a meandering return; our introduction was literally a poke in the eye with something sharp. This time, it’s more obvious and a lot bigger. 2002’s choroidal melanoma was barely 2mm but made its presence inescapably obvious by its lifting of the retina. The advice that I had a 70% chance of surviving five years razed my confidence to the ground, but proved wildly pessimistic.
After five biopsies, an internal exam with a metal snake, blood tests, x-ray, ultrasound, MRI and the most impressive of the lot, a PET scan after which I was radioactive for a week, I have the final opinion. Squamous cell carcinoma: a 1.5cm tumour at the base of the tongue on one side, and a secondary tumour in the adjacent submandibular lymph which PET technicians say shows a 3cm area of “highly suspicious glucose uptake”. Both John Diamond and Michael Douglas had the same kind of problem, with very different results.
The PET scan is the most interesting of the lot, and was carried out at the Paul Strickland centre at Mt Vernon, to shed light on a shadow “of concern” at the base of the tongue. They combine a radioactive isotope with glucose, and inject this fluid directly into the bloodstream. Tumours have a far higher uptake of glucose than normal cells, because they use this rather inefficiently to generate energy rather than the oxygen which normal cells use, so after 45 minutes they will have drunk their fill of it at the other cells’ expense. Only the liver lights up the scan to the same degree.
You are strapped into an awesome circular contraption which records the precise location of all this radioactivity, and sure enough, their beautiful, brilliant orange flares matched precisely the area, shape and size of the “concerns” my consultant had. The size of the secondary tumour puts me in the stage 3 phase, out of 5. You’re then sent home with a note explaining you need to keep away from people for a few hours, and that you may set off airport detectors for several days. I did wonder, though, if cancer cells like glucose so much, what about hooking up a poison to it, and putting a lot more of it in the blood. I later found out that’s apparently what some enterprising chap in America did, combining molasses with baking soda, and demolishing his prostate cancer and some 30 metastasised sites througout his hips. It’s also a similar idea to the natural occurring B17 molecule, which has an inert molecule of cyanide.
So here was one choice: be out of action for a year, and lose all the glands in my right face and neck, have the back of my tongue burned away, and endure multiple does of chemo – and after that have a 40% 5 year survival for someone in my stage 3 state. What about work? I can’t be off the grid for even a few weeks. A pause. “It’s unlikely you’ll be able to work during that year,” was the reply. When a surgeon says “unlikely” what he really wants to say is forget about it! Completely! Are you nuts?! Just as there may be some discomfort translates to you’ll enter a world of pain. I later mentioned that I’d wanted to consult with friends and family who underwent chemo, to get their opinion. “And..?” “They’re all dead!”
But here’s the other choice, an opportunity to become involved in the healing process, rather than just a bystander: learn everything possible about cancer, from the vast amount of research and experience contributed by others all over the world, and try to overcome it on my own. The surgeon did his professional best to hide his despair, but reminded me this kind of cancer can spread to the cheek, and eventually to the brain. After three months he could not guarantee any worthwhile treatment. But sometimes life doesn’t give you two pleasing choices, perhaps because if it did, you could spend a lifetime dithering. So some decisions are surprisingly easy, and once made, a weight was lifted off me, and I felt free.
After the initial shock I realised there were a few things actually in my favour. For one thing, my life is flexible enough that I can do any amount of research and rework my diet in any direction without affecting my children or the quality of my technical output. The other advantage is an intense curiosity about molecules and how they work. And not least, I have a faith that everything must have a reason.
We live in a law-bound universe, from the molecules to the stars. The machinery of our body, above all else, is a process of order, not chaos. I do not believe in Darwin’s idea that at the base of us is a hollow nothing. At the base of us is order, so concentrated and so intense that it forms an endless field of study. If cancer is a messenger, it has an urgent message; if I can interpret that, I stand some chance of putting it right. Cancer got a foothold at a certain time which must say something about conditions at the cellular level, and I want to know what they are.
I don’t believe Nature intended mankind to develop scurvy or cancer. The two can be equated because though symptoms are extreme, they are indeed symptoms, and the causes must be relatively simple – because life doesn’t particularly favour the polymath. In some societies, cancer is virtually unknown. And Japanese women have a very low incidence of breast cancer, but when they move to America, they develop tumours at the standard Western rate. Their genetics remain unaltered – presumably – which only leaves environment, including stresses, and diet.
Armed with that faith, I begin my investigation. We’ll learn how to approach it, or how not to.. and in the process uncover something which is bound to be extremely interesting. Wish me luck!