Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mesothelioma, Alternative Treatments, and the War on Cancer

         “If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, call…You may be entitled to a settlement.” When watching daytime television, you have probably been bombarded by advertisements for injury settlement law firms looking for mesothelioma patients to represent. If you’re like me, you have probably wondered, “What the heck is mesothelioma, anyway? Should I be worried about it, if so many attorneys are seeking patients and their families? What can I do to prevent it?”        
            My curiosity piqued by so many commercials, I decided to research mesothelioma a bit. Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, which primarily manifests in the symptoms of breathing difficulties and weight loss. In truth, mesothelioma is a rare cancer which affects only about 2,000 individuals in the US every year. However, it’s easy to see why injury lawyers would want to seek out mesothelioma cancer patients. Many companies continued to put asbestos in industrial and consumer products long after they were aware it was dangerous. People in certain professions like construction, refineries, and even teachers are at a much higher risk for having been exposed to asbestos. These workers may have unwittingly been exposed to asbestos and risk developing mesothelioma cancer, a cancer with a less than 10% 5- year survival rate with traditional therapies.           
            Though mesothelioma is a rare cancer, cancer in general is the leading cause of death in Americans under the age of 85. It has become an epidemic, and traditional cancer therapies only treat the cancer after it has been diagnosed. Logically, the most effective way to deal with this epidemic is to prevent cancer before it forms. The National Cancer Institute states that tobacco use, radiation, infection, and immunosuppressive medicines are all factors known to increase the risk of developing cancer. In addition, diet, alcohol, physical activity, obesity and other environmental risk factors are thought to affect the risk of cancer. With so many known and suspected cancer risks, there are clearly many ways that preventive medicine can assist with lowering the risk of cancer.
            Many health insurance companies are hesitant to provide coverage for preventive medicine, because they cannot definitively see the benefit. If a patient does not develop cancer, heart disease, or another common ailment, how can they be sure that preventive medicine was a factor? Perhaps the patient is just naturally healthy, or is just lucky. Since the insurance company cannot prove a negative, they cannot financially justify the cost of coverage for preventive medicine. In the business sense this is logical, but in the sense of a patient’s well-being it is neglectful. It is rare to find an insurance company that will provide coverage for tobacco or alcohol cessation treatment, or cover weight loss counseling to prevent or treat obesity. However, by providing insurance coverage for these services, patients would not only improve their overall well-being but be lowering their risk of cancer—the number one killer!
            Since so many insurance companies in the United States do not cover preventive medicine, it is understandable that individuals seek alternative therapies beyond traditional medicine. Herbs and supplements are a massive industry in the US, and consumers purchase them liberally (often with very little knowledge of proper dosing or even knowledge of the source of the supplement.) This can obviously be dangerous to consumers who do not research the herbs and supplements they are taking, and how they might interact with each other or with traditional medicines. Patients should always research supplements before they begin taking them, and consult with a pharmacist to ensure they are not negating the effects of any medicines they are already taking.
            Preventive medicine is the best course of action for avoiding cancer, but cancer still attacks people at an alarming rate. The traditional therapies like chemotherapy and radiation are often effective, but they can also come with frightening side effects like hair loss, bleeding problems, and even infertility. Sometimes they are a last resort, and the patient partakes in these treatments with the understanding they very likely may not cure them. For patients such as this, any and all treatments should be attempted. The FDA certainly only approves a limited number of treatments, but the availability of alternative treatments is endless. Complementary medicine like acupuncture or other Eastern medicine can not only treat the body, but keep the patient’s mind focused on wellness and recovery. In Western medicine, little credence is given to the theory that the human body can treat itself of even the most serious diseases. However, many patients swear by mind-body methods. Since these methods don’t harm an individual, using them to complement traditional therapy can only serve to benefit the patient’s recovery. The National Cancer Institute is currently undergoing clinical trials on such alternative treatments as hypnosis, aromatherapy and essential oils, and yoga. With time, it may come to pass that alternative therapies have an important role in cancer treatment and recovery and should be utilized with as much frequency by oncologists as traditional Western medicine. Individuals such as Rhio O'Connor have proven that these alternatives can be wholly effective; Mr. O'Connor managed to live for 7 1/2 years after his mesothelioma diagnosis (though doctors gave him less than a year based on lack of available treatments). 
            Thankfully, the need to call a personal injury lawyer regarding a mesothelioma diagnosis should be necessary for very few people, and the constantly airing commercials should serve as little but background noise. However, cancer in its many forms is frighteningly common and deadly, and affects every family and every person. The time to eradicate this epidemic is now. Researchers must look at the problem from all angles, and we as a society must make the necessary changes to slow down the spread. From our reliance on chemical preservatives to our insistence on using petroleum-based building materials, it is essential that researchers take a broad view in tackling this issue and that consumers are aware that the choices they make affect their health and the health of humans as a species. We must demand that our insurance companies treat us as people and not as numbers, and we must demand the services that will improve our well-being. In the face of a cancer diagnosis, we must accept that there are alternative therapies that might help us recover and that the FDA does not necessarily have the last word on what works and what does not. It is our personal responsibility to research treatments and be responsible for our health. 
            We are at war with cancer, but I am confident that this is one war cancer will not win.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Carrying the skeleton

It’s been a long while since I’ve written a blog post. Do people still do that? Surely they must. It’s so much easier to bang out a condensed anecdote on Facebook; that’s usually what I find myself doing. To flesh out the whole story with details, setting the scene with vivid descriptions—it seems too complicated. And will anyone really bother to read it? Probably not. This story isn’t for them, though; this story is for me.

At about age six, I had a dream that haunted me for years to come. I told this dream to nearly any friends or family that would listen, and it was a rare day when I didn’t think about the dream. Now that I’m in my 30’s, I can say the dream only comes to mind a few times per year. Yesterday was one of those days.

The dream went like this: I watched the dream unfold cinematically before my eyes. An old woman traipsed through a barren desert, carrying a large and obviously heavy red bag over her shoulder. Every step clearly took a great effort, and I could tell she’d been walking for a very long time. I watched her carry this red bag, until suddenly she stumbled and fell down. I knew immediately that she was dead. As she fell, she dropped the red bag next to her and I saw it wasn’t a bag at all, but rather a red cape. The cape spilled open, and lying in the sand under it was a grinning skeleton, its face turned to be completely visible. Like the credits in a film, in large white letters appeared the words “Choose Your Friends Carefully.” And the dream ended.

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I woke up more terrified than I’ve ever been by a dream. It made no sense! The bleached white, grinning skeleton was emblazed in my psyche and I shuddered whenever I thought of it. That dream happened nearly 25 years ago, yet I remember it like it was yesterday. As a child, I would often ponder the dream and search for meaning. I had worked out that it was a commentary on friendship, yet I couldn’t discern why it had come to me in such a morbid fashion. Why the desert? Why a skeleton? Am I the skeleton? Why would a six-year-old conjure these images?

It took me nearly a quarter of a century, but I think I’ve finally realized the metaphor of the dream. I am not the skeleton. I am the carrier of the skeleton. The dream represents the sort of friend I am, and the sort of friend I’ve always been. Even in the most stressful and dire of situations (traipsing through a barren desert), I will not let my friends flounder. Something as final as death will not stop me from doing everything I can to make their lives better. Could I, as the carrier, have made my life easier by leaving my friend’s body behind? Yes, I could have. I could have left the body to turn into a skeleton by itself, and spared myself the extra weight of carrying the body on my own shoulder. The body did not have to become a skeleton on my shoulders, but I made the choice to let it. Perhaps I could have found a way out of the desert without the extra weight; instead, I allowed myself to perish for the sake of something that would never recognize my sacrifice. A skeleton.

Is it good to be the carrier? In some ways, yes. The carrier is loyal. The carrier wants only the best for those around them. The carrier is a martyr. It’s clear, however, that the skeleton is the real winner. The skeleton has the support of the carrier, and knows the carrier will not drop it until the carrier finally dies herself. It’s good to be the skeleton, but isn’t the skeleton eventually just extra weight? Is it ever good to be simply deadweight?

At the close, the dream boldly told me to choose my friends carefully. Not to surround myself with skeletons. A true friend would have wanted the carrier to leave her body behind when it began to fail her; she wouldn’t have burdened the carrier with her weight. Friendship contains sacrifices, but not at the expense of others. The carrier has a skeleton inside her, too; we all contain a skeleton. We need to carry the weight of our own skeleton, but never let it define us.

I shall never understand how the brain of a child could concoct an allegory of such stunning accuracy. Likely, I have assigned interpretation to nothing but random firing of synapses. Nonetheless the dream reveals a weakness of mine that I will probably struggle with for the rest of my life. My natural inclination is to help others at any cost, even at the expense of my own happiness. I must remember: it’s ok to be the carrier once in a while, but it’s also ok to drop the damn skeleton and keep walking.