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Enlightenment From Suffering? Walking In The Shadow of Cancer

7 April 2013

Good morning, dear readers. I was in lab sipping coffee and updating notebooks this calm Sunday morning when I stumbled across this beautifully clear, enlightening, and inspiring, if not haunting, glimpse into the consciousness of author Susan Gubar, currently battling ovarian cancer:

Reading it coalesced what were otherwise fleeting ideas floating around my head. Although not completely science related, I have always been fascinated by the different ways patients deal with the prospect and uncertainty about their own mortality. After all, the aim of all cancer research (and this blog) is to reduce human suffering.

Can perspective reduce suffering even in the most dire of circumstances? What if we realize that they are not so dire to begin with? What if this process of death enables us to LIVE? For those of us not stricken with cancer, can we learn from these lessons without going through the disease ourselves? For those fighting the disease, could we develop a framework for a standard procedure of mental conditioning and consultation for mental clarity and greater quality of life?

Image: if we accept that the horizon is hard to see, perhaps we can gain more out of the present, whether we have cancer or not?

I realize that these are open-ended questions, but as I have progressed in my scientific apprenticeship I have come to realize that embracing these types of mental uncertainty can yield unexpected enlightenment, and yes, it can sometimes provide very concrete solutions to daunting physical, highly technical biological problems.

Even if I could waive my magic pipette and cure all cancer tomorrow, it would not alleviate human suffering. The absence of physical illness is not health. At the same time, I think there are very legitimate lessons that everyone can learn from cancer patients.

Recently, NPR did an article (Death Cafes Breathe Life Into Conversations About Dying) about people who meet up, have tea, sit around, and talk about dying! It might seem initially repulsive or taboo, but what has developed out of it is something that this cancer researcher sees as great value:

“When we acknowledge that we’re going to die, it falls back on ourselves to ask the question, ‘Well, in this limited time that I’ve got, what’s important for me to do?’ ” Underwood says.

Perhaps being more open about our own mortality will help us put more value in the time that we have left. We are all going to die at some point. (unless science conquers aging, which is a possibility, but I am not holding my breath) I cannot help but notice that most of my conversations with people about cancer revolve around an individual’s deep-seeded fear of dying. It’s extremely consuming; I’m willing to bet that more people will suffer from crippling cancer anxiety than the disease itself. Neither is pleasant. One is almost certainly curable.

Almost all cancer research is directed at extending life. I seldom hear anything about enhancing the time living for cancer patients. And not just cancer patients; I see great value in this for all of us. How could we cultivate this as individuals, as communities, and as a society?

Anyway, I must get back to work, dear readers. Thank you for taking the time to hear my thoughts. I would love to hear yours!


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