Hope vs. Science

I didn’t have to take an AP Biology class to understand how the body works. I just had to start running. By simply putting one foot in front of the other I came to understand a great deal about the body, how it gets stronger, how it weakens, etc. It was absolutely fascinating….and also quite easy to figure out. Cancer, on the other hand, has a complexity in process that continues to baffle patients and doctors alike, forcing us to take shots in the dark regarding treatment and “cures”. I’m in an even more remote corner of that “dark” in that my cancer is quite rare, so the understanding and treatment of it baffles even further. Hell, have you even HEARD of Psuedomyxoma Peritonei? When was the last 5k for stomach cancer you entered? Yeah…on the hierarchical pyramid of cancer awareness, it feels like PMP is a stone that has fallen off the bottom corner.

Regarding the treatment of my cancer, the confusion continues unabated. I get the sense that the doctor’s are at such a loss for direction that they throw me chemo drugs that work for other cancers in close proximity to mine (colon/pancreatic) in hopes that I respond, although my surgical oncologist let on that most people DON’T respond to the chemo treatment I’m receiving. My medical oncologist affirmed that perspective when he encouragingly expressed,

“SOMETHING you are doing is working. I don’t know what that is, but keep doing it anyways.”

But you know what….I’m so tired of this. I’m tired of the back and forth degeneration of my body, the consistent, daily discomforts that consume my every step, the now total inability to engage in intensive physical activities. I can no longer run, bike, hike or anything else that involves any significant impact on my body. Even if I were able to push through the discomfort…why? It’s simply not enjoyable. The last thing I want is a negative association with the activities that give me so much enjoyment and comfort, so I consume myself with other non-physical activities until something forces my hand in either direction.

But what does that entail exactly? As far as I can understand, my doctors plan on giving me chemo until I’m forced to back off, or they continue to hope for a regression of cancer growth in order to make a final surgery an option yet again. Or..I guess…we wait till cancer reproduces beyond all efforts. I don’t know…those are potentials. And all this seems to lie on the premise of taking shots in the dark…right now, indefinitely.

And so I feel a sense of desperation creep in, not so much in a now or never type of futility, but more an influence on my psyche, grasping for potentials, options, alternatives, hopes. Let’s remember, in the doctor’s words, SOMETHING is working..just not working ENOUGH to afford me a physical life I want to tolerate till the end of my days. And so, since SOMETHING is working, I feel compelled to consider the “somethings” that just might be…which brings me back to considering how the body works and what that might mean for my current cancering diagnosis…even if it is fueled by a sense of desperation.

Anyone that knows me well enough will tell you I reject new-age theory, ideas that SOUND good, action based on hope. I look for evidence, concrete conclusions, and philosophical sensibility…but that doesn’t mean all the answers I seek come black and white. Any good scientist will tell you the best answer can sometimes be, “I don’t know.” And so when we talk about all the unknowns related to cancer and the processes of the body that interact with all these unknowns, well, sometimes those forces come together to create unexpected outcomes. Sometimes cancer goes into remission…the process of cancering stops and the tumors die off. Sometimes people stop chemo or outright reject it from the beginning and the cancering stops. Sometimes people make a lifestyle change after diagnosis and the cancering stops.

And we don’t know why.

We can’t point to any one action and say, “THIS is why your cancer stopped reproducing.” We just know it stops…and that’s all we care about.

Here is the consideration I have been bouncing around lately related to all this…what if, just what if ONE way to alter the cancering process involves a connection between a certain mental state and how that plays into the processes of biological functioning. What if our mind has more control over how our body works than we are able to determine at this point?

Now, here’s where I feel compelled to dissuade anyone from drawing conclusions that simply aren’t there. This is all a CONSIDERATION. Just because something sounds GOOD doesn’t mean it’s TRUE…no matter how much our desperation wants us to think so. Just because an eternal afterlife sounds good, by no means makes it a reality. Just because stating that vaccines cause autism gives a sense of comfort, by no means makes it true. Just because stories act as explanations, does not mean they are based in fact. You understand what I’m getting at here.

There are, however, many examples of the mind/body connection that lean towards the idea that we can help our body heal itself through positive mindsets, or even a fundamental shift in perspective. Running taught me more than anything else that when the mind is properly focused, the body can do amazing things, even in the midst of muscle-deteriorating run. I could never recall how many times a deliberate shift in mental perspective during a run allowed me to not only reverse the sense of deterioration in my body, but to then run faster and longer. That, however, does not mean I altered my physical structure in some way. There are other examples though, such as the effect of mental stress upon the immune system and how aggravating mental factors can allow the body to deteriorate, to weaken and become more susceptible to sickness and disease.

Cancer, of course, is a little more complex than that…but I still can’t help consider that there might be more to reversing the cancering process that also entails a shift in mental perspective. What if…and this is another huge IF…the reversal of cancering has more to do with a shift in mental state (stresses, accomplishments, comfort, etc.) than it does with chemotherapy?

Through this experience I’ve heard countless stories of patients who, after diagnosis…or somewhere along the path of treatment, made a significant shift in either their lifestyle (diet, activity, habits) or overall perspective (mortality, quality of life, etc.) and then watched their cancer go into remission…or simply change in some way.

Granted, as much hope as one can draw from such examples, I’ve also experienced a degree of frustration watching individuals adamantly attribute their change in lifestyle as the CURE to cancer. Whether it’s switching to a vegan diet, following a certain method of eating, rejecting chemotherapy, etc., they suddenly claim to have the answer to cancer. In my situation, however, it’s a little frustrating to watch so many people make a change in lifestyle that mirrors what I’ve been doing for countless years now (eat fruits and veggies, be physically active, etc.) and say this is all one needs to do in order to ward off or reverse cancer. Yeah? That sure SOUNDS good.

And here is where my latest consideration grows. What if it’s not a change in lifestyle that helps alter the cancering process, but rather a shift in mental perspective that works in concert with the body that helps stop cancer? What if it isn’t that someone is eating vegan, but that their newfound sense of hope and agency through this lifestyle change has somehow triggered a healing process? What if it isn’t that someone has now started going to the gym every day, but that the power they feel from being physically active and actually making an effort against cancer has triggered a healing process? What if it isn’t that chemo is killing the cancer cells, but that one’s newfound sense of mortality (or immortality for that matter) has triggered a healing process?

My cancer is slow growing. Very slow growing, which means that I was probably dealing with this for a long time before everything came to a head…and that makes me consider what was going on in my life leading up to diagnosis and how this might be playing into the fact that cancer has now suddenly stopped growing in me (in so far as the CT scans tell us). I can tell you this. Although I was eating vegan for 19 years, incredibly physically active, and doing what I felt were all the “right things”…I was also EXTREMELY stressed. Some of this was of my own making, some related to my Type A nature, and some a part of external factors I had little control over. I’ll spare you the details (and spare the emotions of the other individuals involved) but being an adult…with a kid (and a half)…in a deteriorating marriage…in an unsatisfying job…balancing finances…and trying to keep semblance of a very precarious situation led me to a level of stress I couldn’t find an escape from (save the time spent running).

Suffice to say, I was incredibly stressed.

Further, no matter what cathartic releases I had found to deal with the stress, I was still subject to a level of pettiness and frustrated displacement that I’m embarrassed to admit to today.

And then…cancer.

As I continued to walk a tight rope of stress each day, always feeling as if one false move might send my stability into complete disarray, my cancer was growing inside me until it had no more room to grow. So then surgery, and chemo and all that fun stuff…and cancer has stopped growing. But it’s not that simple. Or it MIGHT not be that simple. Through this past year I’ve come to realize that cancer was a positive dynamic in disguise.

It wiped my slate clean.

Life as I had known it completely stopped. My running goals stopped. My financial stresses were erased. The visitation schedule with my son was finally resolved. My unsatisfying job disappeared. Pretty much everything in my life that had me on the edge of collapse dissipated and I was left with a completely clean slate…well…save that whole dying from cancer thing. And that’s where my consideration becomes clearer, because although I could have seen this whole cancer thing as the darkest of corners to reside until something changed, I found a way to not only make the most of it in terms of perspective, but to also use that emptiness that once housed my previous life to build something new, to take advantage of aspirations I had prior to diagnosis, but couldn’t find a path towards.

And MAYBE, just maybe, that shift in perspective has triggered a process to halt my cancer. Mind you, I have ZERO evidence of this, but in the face of so much confusion related to my treatment and the lack of evidence my doctors also seem to harbor..well…why not hold on to the consideration? What if ONE of the factors that allowed my body to start cancering out of control were the stresses that have now been forced from my life? What if ONE of the factors that caused my cancering was related to my inability to focus on the overall positives in my situation in life instead of always being overly critical? What if ONE of the factors that caused cancer reproduction was my displacement of personal frustration onto others instead of finding a new level of security and emotional comfort? So what if I finally found a way out of all that…found a greater value in life…a new level of quality that resides in my mental/emotional sphere and directly plays into my biological processes?

What if I’ve helped stop cancer growth, not by my veganism…not by my running…not even by eliminating the physical stress factors in my life…but by the newfound mental/emotional positivity that I’ve tried to foster in the face of this cancer process?

What if getting off Facebook…pursuing my long-held freelance designing/writing aspirations…not internalizing others negative self-destructive attitudes…allowing myself to love again (and finding someone worth of love)…acting to benefit others at every opportunity…and generally shaping my life in a way that gives me the deepest level of value, has had a greater effect in halting my cancer growth than the destructive powers of chemotherapy?

What if?

Let’s be clear though. These are CONSIDERATIONS. These are mired far more in hope than they are evidence…and that is a precarious place to be, leaving us unable to draw any definitive conclusions either way. That doesn’t mean they are invaluable, however, because when science is offering us little more in the way of both treatment and correlation, all considerations should be up for grabs.

This may be more desperation than grounding, or more hope than truth, and maybe just SOUND GOOD instead of ABSOLUTE TRUTH…but with little else to go on, I’m going to continue pushing this idea of a good life creating a healthy life and see where it takes me.

And it’s never too late for all of us to play out this consideration, diseased or not. After all, what do we have to lose except our frustrations, and nothing to gain but a better life?

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14 responses to “Hope vs. Science

  1. Your writings are both depressing and enlightening at the same time. I’ve never been through anything like this, so I can’t relate. I just wish they could cure this horrible thing already.

  2. I love this post. While I am not dealing with anything as serious as you, I had a life event that spurred me to follow my dreams and cut my stress way back. I wouldn’t ask for the experience nor do I ever want to go through it again, but where I am is so much better. Broke, yes, but happy and so much healthier. Hope or science, I want this to be part of your healthy life plan.

    • Laura, I’m glad you found value in your own personal adversity as well. I’m glad you came out the other side, and yes, I hope to as well!

  3. I truly appreciate your measured thought processes. That you balance in your writing hope and reason just as you describe doing in your life. It is painfully rare to find people like you willing to discuss that they may or may not be correct; that they have a theory or an inkling or a hope but that they are willing to present is as a discussion rather than absolute fact.

    To that end I would only add that we don’t have the voices of the dead to add to the discussion. We don’t have the voices of those who made liferstyle changes of all sorts and died anyway. Probably cancer compels many people to make dramatic changes in their lives out of both necessity and desperation, and some of them die, and some of them live, and those who live are the ones with the privilege of adding their stories, of attributing their survival to the changes they made.

    • Thanks for your good words Ericka. I have to admit that I’m able to walk this line of uncertainty, precisely because I tried the opposite in the past, expressing ideas in absolutist terms…which got me nowhere. I now understand the value in accepting ideas, but not presenting them as undeniable fact. There is a great deal of liberation in being confused.

      True, we don’t have the voices of those that didn’t survive through cancer to add to the narrative…we only have their lack of presence, which tells a certain story of it’s own. I only hope to keep telling my story for as long as possible.

  4. What a great post – although your current situation sounds crippling and frustrating to the extreme, I really admire your ability to step back a little and to think carefully about your situation. You even point out some positive things that are coming out of your ordeal. I firmly believe that we can learn the most from the worst experiences in life. I am not a new-age person either, I’m a scientist by trade – a psychologist to be precise. And I do believe that our mental state has a big impact on our bodies. You have pointed that out yourself when you mentioned examples of turning a run around by thinking positively about it. I don’t think that you can cure cancer by willpower alone, but I do believe that treatment can be much more effective if you feel positive about it.

    • Thanks FMR…I hope I conveyed that I also don’t think willpower can cure cancer by itself, but I do feel it aids in the process of healing someway…though I have no evidence. And yes, I’ve found a way to pull a lot of positivity out of this situation, so even if a positive mindset doesn’t reverse my cancering process…at least I stayed in a good emotional place through it all.

  5. Great post as usual Scott. Speaking with you, seeing you and reading your thoughts, there is such an evident change. I won’t say humility because you have always been a humble person, I will call it release. You seem to be carrying much less tension, which is remarkable given what you are going through. Here are some ideas I have… I experience stress as a tension like a rope wrapped around my body being pulled taught. Stress is likely the most significant factor in pathology of every kind, though it may or may not be the cause, it is very influential in the development of pathology. Release, I experience like an ex-hale, a slackening of the rope. It happens, usually, not from resolving the stress causing factor, but from accepting that the stress causing factor is beyond my control. In accepting and releasing the stress, a new mental state is found. The dichotomy of that new state is that it has accepted the cause of stress and in accepting is more likely to resolve the stress. Hope that wasn’t too new age for you. You are an inspiration brother.

    • Hey friend, thanks for your good words…and no, I don’t think that was new-agey at all. I like the metaphor of a tensioned rope, and adding slack to it. And yeah, I feel like this situation has taken away so much that I have no choice but to let it all go, knowing I can’t do much to actually eliminate the stress…so I just have to accept it and focus on other positives. Thanks for the perspective.

  6. I SO agree with this! What do we have to lose by trying to live a positive life full of joy? My husband and I just got back from traveling the world for six and a half months. We quit our jobs to do it, so we knew that upon returning we would be job searching. About halfway through our trip I decided that happiness is a choice and I was going to choose to be happy from then on. I have never been a “hippie vegan”, but making that choice really had an effect on my life. Before the trip, I had never had a job I had enjoyed. I decided that when we got back, I would spend my time looking for work that would add to my happiness, not diminish from it. No job yet (we’ve only been home for two weeks!), but I’m not even letting the process feel depressing. I’ve just decided that it’s all good and will be all good, so how could it not be? I don’t think it can negatively affect me to think positively, and maybe it even helps. Science has so many answers, but I think sometimes we do just have to hope and believe that the good will come. Fingers crossed!

    • Molly, there is nothing like the vacation mindset to really help you envision what you want to do in life…and motivate you to do so. I’m glad you aren’t just letting the motivation die in the face of the usual post-travel routines and are working to make it happen. I’ve always found that when you take the leap, the net somehow appears. I hope the same for you.

  7. Great post. And great writing, as always.

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