Mute

There is a button on everyone’s remote control that can at any time mute any electrical device that makes a sound. It’s there and we can use it. We don’t always mute things. We have all grown accustomed to the noises around us. Being around a device emitting any sound keeps us distracted, engaged, and connected.

Death is an irreversible mute button. It leaves behind a bewilderment of emotions, a tearing separation of souls, a loss of interactions that once were, a silence that is deafening. Once pushed, a person is blocked from life. We cannot engage with them. I have questions that are left unanswered, events that I cannot explain to the family of a lost one, to my coworkers and to myself. Unsaid things can never be shared, and unfulfilled connections can never be restored. I have to go deep inside me to find a reason behind what just happened, how they felt, what they last shared before they got silenced. I have to work my emotions through the grief of loss, balance my mind to help someone else and continue to live on through the perils that life still has for me.

I try to imagine a life after the loss of a loved one, where only the living participate, and life must produce from its sole ingredients the answers to those who are no more; answers that even challenge the scientific mind and the soul.

“Why go on?”

Every human life lost to cancer has its toll. To me I struggle with the question, “how to get up and do this again?” I don’t mute my feelings, or block my emotions.  They travel with me, and sadness does overcome me many times over.

Together with those who have felt a loss, I get up.

 

Understand

Death does not put an end to everything. It inspires feelings, questions, and gives perspective. People ask me how I feel when I lose patients. Do I feel sad, angry and defeated? I have walked with my patients down this path and returned alone. It does not end there. Death does not end things. Death is not the last thing.

From each patient I keep something with me. Patients help me gather knowledge that flows stronger than a river and wisdom that propels others who have to walk that path. The path remains uncertain but the journey of those we lost refines and paves the way. There is a certain enlightenment that comes from this that I hope to make you all perceive. What started small in the beginning, with the trust of a few, has become an organic tangible construction of the science needed to move us forward. 

 “A bend in the road, is not the end of the road, unless you refuse to take the turn”. Families always take the turn. What’s the alternative? To go on grieving what could have been? Do we live in our memories? When you meet the loved ones of a lost patient, trudging their way through the rest of life, do you wonder what drives them? I am always touched and humbled by what they say amidst their sadness and fear, their feelings of loss and grief. They say prayers for other cancer patients, and a shout out to me, “You go get this, Mo”, “You figure this out”, and “You find out why?” These words push me on, make me get up, make me see what still needs to be done. 

Memories ebb and flow rubbing into our wounds and heightening our suffering. At times they gather together, like a swarm of locusts they invade, leaving nothing behind: a loss of meaning and loss of purpose, a desolate place. Out of it emerges a new beginning, a new start, that puts the bounce back into our feet and we are alive again. Understand, that is how we make our memories live within us without their crippling effect, and those we have lost can show the way for all of us to succeed.

Dialogue

Person: Can you help me?

Me: I believe that is why I am here, ready with a new treatment, a loaded gun and many tricks up my sleeve.

 P: Is it always this hard?

 M: Yes.

 P: Is there hope?

 M: Without it, we will not survive.

Imagine this dialogue that starts in the pit of someone’s stomach, a mixture of fear, anger, hope, and courage.  I partake in it and I do not dismiss it. Have you ever been afraid?  Where the walls caved in and it seemed confusing? Where what consumed others felt petty, trivial and meaningless. When you sit on the edge of a diagnosis of cancer and are worried about yourself, your family and your loved ones. This is the human I meet, sometimes confused, often afraid, and always hopeful. This is the person from which courage emanates. With this person, I stand united.

Cancer: I am here.

Me: Who are you? And why have you invaded us?

C: I am a product of survival, a state, a process. Who are you?

M: I am here to kill you.

These are my words when I look at cancer, the perfunctory introductions. A long battle is about to ensue. This is the enemy I know well. On this battlefield, a new sword has to be forged, to fight in the face of fear, uncertainty, and discouragement.  Every day a different person walks into my life and stands stronger against this common threat. Our unique existence, our individuality is a paintbrush that brings to life our depths and our dreams. In life, we march only forward regardless of how timid we feel or where our hearts want to be. I sharpen the reality that was thrust upon this person with my words. My patient stands steadfast in trust and belief.

And the dialogue resumes………

 Me: Which way this time? Cancer, are you ready?

 

Quiet

“I don’t need this right now,” he said as I finished telling my patient the plan of his care. He had been quiet. I sighed and made my way back to my chair to settle down. Sitting down, I let my mind wander. It’s not easy to change things midstream but I think oncologists should re-examine when prompted subtly or blatantly, to what they are actually saying to a patient. I started to eliminate the stressors that plague every day practice. It’s a busy clinic, 40 odd some patients to see, bouncing between good and bad news. We were both quiet. In his silence I sensed his resentment, and I felt sad. Behind his silence, there was anger.

He fidgeted. I watched him remove his cap, stifled by the news I had just delivered. They try to teach you this in medical school as my mind raced through my training (14 years), empathy they called it. As a physician I have learned not to depend only on my training to help my patients but also on my life experiences that have brought me to where I am. I searched for something within my life that he could relate to; I know adversity and I know anger. I looked specifically for strengths that I had understood at his age when I myself had faced difficult situations. Yes, I thought quietly, I know where you are. You’re angry. I let that emotion into me, a little bit of self-exposure, and the patient and I became one. Sometimes it’s hard to invite a complete stranger into your own home, but anger was not a stranger to me.

I was young when I was touched by a war – the Gulf crisis as it is referred to. I was angry then, like a young person would be if their life had been interrupted by something they had no control over. Cancer is a war. It demands a constant engagement of every aspect of our humanness to fight. It does not mean we fight without emotion. It does not mean we are raving lunatics either. It’s a constellation of problems, an inconvenience, a cost, and an interruption. It puts a halt on education, careers, motherhood, retirement, and vacation. It consumes time, money, and emotions. There is never a good time for it, and there never will be. Empathy is a deep connection that exists between two humans where one can show true understanding and bring meaning to a difficult situation. Empathy is not observed it is felt.

We sat quietly. Nothing more needed to be said. In the end, like a spilt jug of water on the floor, we both got up and started to pick up the pieces and clean the mess. Cancer, you can’t defeat the human spirit. Cancer, you are just in the way. Cancer you are not winning anything. Cancer, you have a lot to answer to. Naive is my scientific brain, just as bravery is when facing a formidable foe. I am not the one to bring cancer to its knees but I do believe that those who suffer from it do that daily.

Mo

 

Eureka!

As I sat and watched, with awe, Vice President Biden’s summit speech on his vision of the cancer moonshot, I came alive and transformed… I felt empowered and validated. Oh the calamity of thoughts that went through my head. “By golly he’s got it!” Everyone has been there at some point, that delirium that accompanies figuring something out. “Eureka!” I thought. Mine hit all at once, and I have been reeling ever since that day of June 29th but my mind is settling to tell you a story. My friends, I am back, maybe not as often, but I will tell you I never left.

He sat across my stool afraid. He was bright eyed, sharp and thinking through the things I had discussed. “You are going to do what?” he asked, “Inject my sarcoma with a herpes virus?” I remained calm but my passion was bursting out of me because I was excited. This was my idea, an idea that has been brewing in my mind for the last 2 years, an idea that allowed me to use my knowledge to help someone, a clinical trial that I wrote. I don’t know how my patients do it; they find the wisdom, the courage, the generosity and open-mindedness to accept my words. Was it that I danced in front of him telling him about the science? Was it the cancer that inspired him to be creative? Was it his immense trust in me? It did not take him long to contemplate the proposal, to believe as he told me. Enter Subject 001.

Cancer, as VP Biden clearly remarked, is a threat the human race can unite to double the rate at which we make progress in trying to push and propagate the knowledge we have to solve its mysteries. As I reflect on this statement, the one person who comes to mind is subject 001- I get the equivalent feeling that we as humans were able to conquer space to get to the moon and back, I reflect on the day I put my patient on my trial, a trial that was unique in its rights, different and innovative. Subject 001 to me, is the first person on the moon. What a feeling!

Eureka! The day has come for us to find out that I am out of a job, that cancer has been cured, that the world is at peace, that we have overcome our fears and that we have won the war against despair. Yeah sure, we all dream. And maybe that is what makes us achieve our dreams; our hopes, our engagement and our efforts. Perhaps it’s a man standing up and saying, “What’s wrong? Why can’t we do this?” I sometimes recognize how hard it is for a General in the army to will his soldiers to go to battle. This is a war, an urgent need to develop cancer breakthroughs and a strong message for us to do things without submitting to bureaucracy, greed, and negative inertia.

“My patient is interested in joining this clinical trial” the bark of a General that does this daily. The coordinator picks up her task; she is as excited as I am. What drives people to work so hard behind the scenes to actualize a clinical trial still fascinates me. It is this ownership, this dedication that can turn the tables in this fight against this devastating disease… let’s not turn against each other, retard each other’s progress, allow politics and competition to stop us.

Don’t just sit there, do something! Don’t put it off for another day, don’t lean on reasons not to act, but rather seize the moment you are in and become part of the history-changing initiative, become a part of how we revolutionize cancer treatment.

Mo.