Friday, April 29, 2005

cancer lurks deep in the sweetest bud

Well, I've become quite the little celebrity hound in the past two days. Of course, it's the other side of the pendulum from which I speak today. The kind of famous people I'd rather see as celebrities, I suppose. In particular, today I managed to see Dr. Harold Varmus speak. He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1989. He won a National Medal of Science in 2002. This is only the second time in my life I've ever heard a Nobel prize winner speak. Last time, I was about 19, and hardly understood much of the work that was presented. Today, I felt like someone had adjusted the focus just so- everything perfectly sharp and crisp.

A lot of people bellyache about the lack of real advances in science and medicine, but that can quickly be dispelled by simply listening to someone who has made that their life's work for 30-plus years. It takes a span of time like that to really illustrate how much things have changed. 30-plus years ago, if you were diagnosed with any type of leukemia, the prognosis was beyond grim. Even when I was a child, you would hear about kids who had leukemia, and as if a vacuum had sucked all the air out of the room, everyone would fall silent, bracing for the bad news. Has leukemia been cured? Not altogether. But your chances of surviving it now, especially if you're young when you get it, have increased in truly breathtaking ways.

Sure, there's the bone marrow donations, which definitely help patients. But nowadays, because of people who spend over 30 years slaving away in the research labs, it goes far beyond that. Nowadays, in a lot of types of leukemia, a physician can take a sample of your blood, analyze it, and tell you whether you're going to respond well to therapy or not, whether you need to be treated more aggressively or not. It's all there now, like looking into a crystal ball.

This notion just intoxicates me, entrances me. This idea that the things that are happening to all of us are really playing out at this microscopic, unseen level. A member of my family recently had congestive heart failure, a very mild case. He went to the hospital because he was not feeling well and was having trouble breathing, but the doctors were on the verge of releasing him, his symptoms seeming fairly trivial for someone his age. The blood tests came back, and they knew something was amiss. And in fact, they knew it was his heart. Even though it manifested extremely mildly in terms of physical symptoms, at the molecular level, the battle was raging in full force. If this family member of mine had never been diagnosed with CHF, he would have never been given medication to treat it. And that means he would have suffered a more acute, most likely fatal heart attack later on down the road. Medicine has all sorts of shortcomings and warts, but being able to catch things like this gives me pause to make any indictments.

Varmus' talk gave me even more pause, commanded even more respect for his profession. To see someone speak about a field they're so clearly committed to advancing, to see someone speak about something they truly love, it's equal parts alluring and heartbreaking.

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