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Gifts and Giving


A close relative is a two-time cancer survivor.  He was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer that is notorious for recurrence.  Fortunately the doctors caught it early and rounds of radiation and chemotherapy worked their magic on the tumor.  When he came back for a follow-up check after finishing therapy, they found a spot on his kidney.  He was diagnosed with kidney cancer and had to have that organ removed.  That was over a dozen years ago and he is still NED – no evidence of disease. 

Even though more than a decade has passed since he had a tumor in his body, I still hesitated before sending him his Christmas present.  I had just finished reading a wonderful book and thought that he would enjoy it as well.  But was the subject matter too personal?  Too close to home?

The book is The Emperor of all Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer.  In it, the author, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, describes the history of cancer diagnosis and treatment.  It is, more than anything else, a story about the importance of cancer research.  While certain forms of cancer – including melanoma – have been disturbingly resistant to medical advances, modern research has transformed many kinds of cancer into curable or chronic diseases for most patients.  This is a dominant reason that deaths from most cancers are declining in the United States. 

D. Mukherjee speaks from extensive research as well as his own experience as a medical oncologist.  His writing makes clear the passion cancer doctors feel about the fight against this disease.  He describes the urgency driving the quest for new treatments and therapies.  And above all, he focuses on the heroism of the patients who enroll in clinical trials.  Without these men and women, no new advances in the care of cancer would occur.

It is a hopeful book, but does not sugar-coat the horrible nature of the enemy, the malady, that has affected so many of our friends and loved ones.

So, the gift.  Should I give the book?  Should I hold back?  In the end I decided to add it to the package of presents.  People with cancer, more than anyone else, understand the dark, frightening nature of their foe.  But they also, more than anyone else, understand hope.  Not the wishful thinking of a child on Christmas morning rushing to the living room to see if there is a live pony by the tree.  But rather, the grounded kind of hope – understanding  the challenges, of the odds, of the statistics – but still recognizing the very real pathways that researchers and doctors are pursuing to create advances that will mean something to the people fighting this disease.    

I hope he likes his present.  I hope it resonates in him a sense of promise.  I hope it reaffirms in him how amazing and inspiring his fight against cancer is to those around him.  He has looked squarely into the face of the enemy and has prevailed.  If that isn’t a reason to rejoice, then I don’t know what is.