Friday, 15 November 2013

Great granddad's going to be a star

Updated at the end

I spoke to the nursing home where my dad is spending his last days. His condition is deteriorating.  I shall go to see him tomorrow.  I don't know what I shall find.

We took the whole family down two weeks ago because his condition was very poor then.  He didn't recognise us, he was so ill.  My granddaughter had been primed that he was very ill and she went up to him and said "I love you very much, great granddad" and kissed him on the head.  Her mum has explained that great granddad is going to be a star up in the sky. 

I suppose I am a pessimist, resigned to the fate that comes to us all.  It is a long time coming, longer now that medical science has brought us incredible breakthroughs, prevented childhood killer diseases through vaccinations and ended the tyranny of others by the agency of antibiotics.  It would have seemed unthinkable to my grandmother, who lived to be 91, that such an age would be looked upon as fairly mundane now. 

If only there were a miracle cure.  If only there were some magic wand that could counter the pernicious evil that is cancer.  If only cancer were just one thing and not a collective noun for a vast array of cells gone wrong diseases, it would make it so much easier to face and to eliminate, to become something of a curiosity, like measles outbreaks and bacterial infections are now to those who don't truly understand. 

My mother lived in a perpetual fear of cancer.  Her mother, whom she adored, died of breast cancer in 1949, barely fifty years old.  Mum told the story of how her mother, crying out in pain, demanded that the doctor was sent for.  He arrived, and the rest of the family was ushered from the bedroom while the doctor did what he could.  A few minutes later he came downstairs with the news that she would be all right now.  She died that night.  Mum was always suspicious that the doctor gave her mother something to speed her passage.

When dad was first diagnosed with cancer it was frightening but not overly harsh news.  He had a benign skin cancer, treatable but one that kept coming back.  Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but it was slow and treatable, non-aggressive, one that could be contained.  For years he would take himself to the six monthly check ups.  Then came Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.  This was a new ball game, a more frightening cancer, with a lump sticking out of his side that looked as if something were trying to crawl out of his skin, the size of a rat.

But the Non-Hodgkin's was treatable, and it responded brilliantly to chemotherapy.  I sat with him on one of the those chemotherapy sessions, eight hours of infusion while he sat, reading the paper, listening to the radio, snoring after lunch.  It was frightening to see him go through that torment but he emerged the other side, with as much vigour and love of life as he did before. 

The fight is one sided in the end. There is a symmetry to an individual's life - you emerge into the world helpless and so often leave it in the same condition.  Dad is leaving that way.  He needs care for everything he does now.  One so vigorous and young at heart has withered to a husk.  You can understand why some people want to find that miracle cure.

I feel sorry for those people, on their fruitless search.  Not only will they not find it in some ascetic diet or cocktail of fruit juices, they will also not find it in fake chemotherapy run by quack doctors.  This week, one of the heroes of alternative medicine, Stanislav Burzynski, has been uncloaked as the dangerous fraud so many people believed him to be.  That he duped so many is bad enough, to have failed to stop the treatment of people he was poisoning to death (and in at least one case he seems to have done just that) is evil.  And too many were taken in by the PR and the fiction that he was curing people.  If he had a conscience, he would have stopped decades ago.  It is pretty clear to me that he has none.

The fact is, if there were a miracle cure for cancer, doctors would be giving it away.  The pressure on the pharmaceutical companies to make it affordable would be immense.  But there isn't.  It doesn't stop people trying but so far the little victories have been hard fought.  If there were something that could prevent the disruption of chemotherapy then doctors would not hide it or suppress it. They would shout it from the rooftops. 

Alas, that miracle is waiting to be found.  Whether it is amongst those millions of biological compounds waiting to be tested in those reservoirs of biodiversity, the rainforests, the reefs, the abyssal plains, maybe one day it will be found.

I find it insulting to the everyday working scientist who takes home a reasonable but not outrageous wage home for her endless hours in the lab has her labours denied by people who don't have a clue what scientists do, how they work, what they strive for.  I spent a while in the gleaming halls of academia, helping a professor of geography tone up a conference presentation on the hydrological cycle (ah, those were the days) because she was afraid someone would pick holes in the work.  I am no hydrologist (though I do have a book on the subject). My role was to ask the idiot questions.  How do we know?  What does that equation actually mean?  Others took the expert role and criticised other aspects. 

Thousands of scientists around the world are seeking something that will cure just one cancer.  Something, anything, because the benefit of a cure outweighs the harm (because life is better than death).  To know whether the cure is really a cure, the testing process is of necessity rigorous.  Wishful thinking doesn't win the prize.

It pains me to know that my dad couldn't be saved by modern medicine.  It pains me to know that eventually no one can be saved.  No one lives forever.  There remains no cure for everything.  I would love there to be, to restore my dad to the man he was when I was a child, playing football and cricket with us because he loved sport so much. 

A few weeks ago I came across a notebook my dad had on National Service back in 1949.  In it he wrote a letter he never sent.  It is a window into his world that is otherwise lost for good.  He mentions his own father's recent illness.  "I don't know what I would do without you" he says to his mum and dad.  I don't know what I would do without my dad.

It was painful to see dad yesterday.  He was in pain, mostly asleep, hardly recognised me.  I'd hate to see anyone like that but when it is your own father it is so shocking. 

I've been taking some photos on my phone when I've been seeing him, just so I have some last memory more permanently recorded.  When I showed them to some other family members on my return, my granddaughter want to have a look.  Her response: "Poor great granddad.  He's dying." 

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