The Cancer Diaries, Part 10

My father died of esophageal cancer several years ago. It was a horrible, lingering death, and I watched him shrivel and die, in constant pain towards the end. On one of my last visits to his bedside, he asked me whether I thought it was better to die with the full knowledge of what was happening to you, or to be unaware.

It was a startling, unexpected question. My father and I had had few, if any, philosophical discussions in our lives together. Without giving it a lot of thought, I replied, “With knowledge.” I probably thought he was talking about the pain-killing drugs he could ask for, the sort that also numb your mind and make you oblivious, put you into a narcotic coma that takes away the pain and stress.

I have always wanted to know what is happening to me, to be aware of everything around me. I would hate to be unable to read as I do every day now. I would have assumed he would too — both my parents were voracious readers — but he never gave me back his own response, just looked up at the ceiling. I probably thought he was having a pain spasm and didn’t try to pursue it further. I should have noticed then that he was reading less and less as the cancer progressed.

But later I thought more about it, about his question and my response. I still do, but he died before I could return to discuss it with him.

By the time my father was sent to the hospital for his remaining time palliative care, my mother had already been placed in a nursing home. My father had resigned himself to the fact he could no longer care for her as she needed. She had had a stroke in 1960, leaving her left side paralyzed, and by the mid-1990s, was pretty much wheelchair-bound. My father continued to care for her every day, stoic and uncomplaining as he had for almost four decades, but at 92 he simply didn’t have the strength to move her in and out of her chair or bed, or lift her when she fell. The move to a care facility was mandated by both their ages and declining health.

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Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

News that asteroid “2018 VP1“, will pass within about 480 kms of Earth on November 2, 2020, has raised social media hopes that it might be drawn in by the planet’s gravity and crash on the White House, thus ending any speculation about the reviled Donald “Putin’s Puppet” Trump’s re-election. However, if you are among the alleged millions who wish for this scenario, I suggest you are being overly optimistic. Not only is the targetting rather too specific, but the chances of it even reaching the ground are very slim. And besides, it’s pretty damned small for an asteroid.

2018 VP1 is about 2m wide. As pointed out in the above-linked article, back in 2013 a much larger (20m) chunk of rock entered the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, but exploded before it reached the surface. This rock was dubbed a “superbolide” (a bolide is a large meteor which explodes in the atmosphere): the entry and the heat from the friction caused it to explode about 30 km above the surface. Even at that distance the explosion caused extensive damage to buildings and the landscape. 2018 VP1 is a tenth the size.

In 1908, one of the most famous bolides exploded over Siberia in a similar fashion, causing much greater damage: it’s known today as the Tunguska Event. the rock that entered the atmosphere has been estimated to be about 100m in diameter, and exploded between five and 10 kms above the surface.

So at 2m, 2018 VP1 probably won’t even get that far before burning up or possibly exploding in the stratosphere. Damn, say a lot of Democrats.

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The Cancer Diaries, part 5

The resilience of the human body is truly amazing. Here I am, three weeks after major surgery, and much of my daily life is back to normal. I can drive, walk the dog, unpack the dishwasher, cook meals, pour the wine, feed the cats, walk upright… a far cry from my crabbed old-man style of a week or two ago.

Not that I am fully recovered. I have several weeks or even months ahead of me for that. My incisions are still tender, in particular the spot where the Hemo-vac tube had been inserted. The main incision from my navel to my pubes remains a bit raw and ugly (to my eyes, but I have no Goth sensibilities, I suppose), and the bruising hadn’t quite gone away. I can’t walk or get up from my chair as quickly as before surgery, but I am still ahead of my post-surgery days. Bending or twisting requires some fore-thought to avoid pain, and if possible the inevitable squirt of urine. Sneezing still makes me leak, too (and hurts the scars). Regardless, I try to get up and move about, walk the dog, go upstairs, do my chores, and get my limited exercise, as often as possible.

Yes, I’m still incontinent, but much, much less than the days immediately following the catheter removal.  My nights are dry, although I get up two or three times to empty my bladder. I graduated from a diaper to a stick-on pad, too. 

Incontinence is humiliating and frustrating. We associate it with either the very young or the very old: infancy or dementia. And maybe extreme drunkenness (although I’ve never been quite that drunk, myself, I’ve known others who have).

For a relatively healthy, normal person to suffer from incontinence can be embarrassing and emotionally stressful. Continence is an early milestone when you start to grow up. It says you have control, you’re a big person now, you gained some independence. You’re on the path to being an adult. And suddenly you’re off it, standing in the drug store aisle trying to decide which sort of pad or diaper you need, while other shoppers mill around you. And it’s not like I can ask for advice from the 17-year-old stock clerk.

Losing that control is a downward slide on the snakes-and-ladders game of life. It means we have lost the control that identified us as adults. There’s little more deflating than thinking you have finally regained control only to stand up and feel the squirt of urine that says you still have a long way to go. A long, slow way because there’s nothing that signals you’ve reached the plateau of control. You just keep exercising and hoping tomorrow it will be okay.

No one wants to talk about it because incontinence isn’t a sexy, fun topic like religion, politics or what’s on Netflix, so you have to figure out how to deal with it by yourself. But when I suddenly leak, especially after I’ve been exercising and think I have gained some control, it’s like a personal failure; my inability to control a basic bodily function that I was able control before age five, but can’t at age seventy.

There’s an inevitable sense of shame. All the intellectualism I muster can’t help that. I can tell myself it’s just temporary, it’s the inevitable result of prostate surgery, it’s something thousands of men go through, that it will get better. It doesn’t make me feel better when I squeeze a drop of urine into my pad (the pad is a constant reminder I have limited independence). It erodes my sense of eudaimonia, as the ancient Greeks called it — that feeling of wellbeing I have tried to cultivate all these many years.

As I wrote in a previous post, there really is no one to talk with about the cancer, the surgery, and the recovery. There isn’t a support group either, at least none locally. Sure, the doctor gives you some basics, but no one at any stage of the process even told me to bring a pad or a diaper to the office when I had my catheter removed. I was fortunate to have had that experience previously, so I knew enough to do that. But there is so much more I had to learn on my own.

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The new normal

Hindenburg burning“Oh, the humanity,” cried Herbert Morrison, as he watched in horror as the giant airship, the Hindenburg, burst into flames at its mooring. The year was 1937, and Morrison’s words still echo down the decades. As the disaster unfolded in front of him, Morrison exclaimed, “…it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it, watch it, folks! Get out of the way, get out of the way! … Oh, the humanity… This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Eighty-three years later, uttering those words of anguish and disbelief wouldn’t be out of place in an eyewitness account of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. They’d be particularly apt when standing in front of a Talibangelist megachurch packed with worshippers while the sane world is in lockdown. Or commenting on the armed proto-fascists protesting lockdown in states that Donald Trump wants to win next November. Or the crowds of self-absorbed and immature people in Florida and California breaking social-distancing rules to demand state governments open beaches so they can party.

In the aftermath of the Hindenburg, travel by airship virtually ceased and the industry died. Air travel never returned to a pre-Hindenburg “normal.”

But as COVID-19 spreads and continues to wreak havoc on communities, businesses, and economies, many of our leaders and indeed citizens believe that it will simply pass, after which we will return to a pre-coronavirus “normal.” Things, they tell us, will go back to the way they were and we will continue on as we did before the pandemic. Things will be “normal” again.

Not only will that not happen, it should not. Normal is what got us into the mess. Normal caused the problems and if we go backward, we will only repeat them in the very near future.

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Dandelions and civilization

Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

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Hegseth, hand washing and social media

Fox News host Pete Hegseth has said on air that he has not washed his hands for 10 years because “germs are not a real thing”.

That’s the headline you read on dozens of media sites and shared throughout social media (this one from BBC News). Instant reactions (mine included) were “ewwww…” followed by negative comments on Fox News in general. But when you stop to think about it, could it be true? Can someone actually go a decade without washing his hands?

No. Surely he bathes or showers regularly. One can’t believe a TV show host would be so unhygienic. His co-hosts would surely comment. Maybe he’s not as observant of the niceties of personal hygiene as others, but a whole decade?

And face it, it’s difficult to believe that even a Fox News host is so stupid as to not believe in germs. Alex Jones, and maybe the other fringe wingnuts like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers could believe such piffle, but surely not a mainstream media host with a university education. Could he? OMG!!!! the tweets erupted.

Predictably, social media lit up like a pinball machine over this comment. So Hegseth tried to explain:

Mr Hegseth later told USA Today that his remarks were intended to be a joke.
“We live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell (a hand sanitiser) in their pockets, and they sanitise 19,000 times a day as if that’s going to save their life,” he said.
“I take care of myself and all that, but I don’t obsess over everything all the time.”
Of the public reaction, he said it was ridiculous how people took things so “literally and seriously” so that their “heads explode”.

He’s right. We react and often over-react. We are knee-jerk trained. Social media has made us into Pavlovian emotional hair-triggers. I am sometimes guilty of it, too, because I am as susceptible to confirmation bias as everyone else. No matter how hard I try to use reason, sometimes those eager little response hormones kick in first. Having our beliefs confirmed is comforting and reinforces them.

But Hegseth’s joke, if indeed it was one, didn’t get everyone laughing. It was a joke without a punchline. A lot of people believed it was true. And others found fault his later explanation, as noted in The Guardian:

On Twitter on Monday, Hegseth gave mixed messages. He claimed he had been joking and paraphrased the president in blaming the media for being so “self-righteous and angry”. He also said he supported drinking from hosepipes and riding bikes without a helmet…

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