It may seem too basic of a question for me to pose, but now that I have been diagnosed (repeatedly) with cancer, as well as undergone chemo for it, it occurred to me to wonder what exactly cancer is.
I, like most people, have a general sense of what cancer is, and that general sense is not good. There is not, after all, any “good” cancer. They all seem to be awful, and there seems to be a heck of a lot of it going around. But I really do not know much about it. I could try and find out more about it. Being of the generation of which I am a part, I could just Google it and see what I could glean about it. (If I were a generation or so younger, I probably would just text or Instagram or something someone to ask about it; if I were much older, I would consult the World Book, being sure to check the most recent annual update for the latest information.) Yet I have a hard and fast rule against looking up anything related to my cancer on the Internet. And, like all hard and fast rules, I have broken it from time to time and then found myself in a state of panic for several days afterwards based on what I read, which if I understood it at all was hopefully taken out of context.
So not being willing to surf the web for insight and no longer having any encyclopedias lying around, I have come to understand cancer based on the bits of information that I have pieced together over the years and, most recently, from my own oncologists. None of this has been vetted by any knowledgeable person, much less an oncologist, and I try not to ask Melissa too many questions so everything I am about to say could be completely wrong. But I never let that stop me.
* * *
For starters, it seems like cancer comes in one of two main genres: solid mass cancer – i.e., tumors – or blood cancer. I, of course, have a form of blood cancer, but I think like most people when I generally contemplate cancer I associate it with some huge lump growing uncontrollably yet undetected in some hidden away part of the body until something goes really haywire and a mass of cells the size of a grapefruit is discovered.
As awful as having a large citrus object discovered in one’s abdomen can be, it at least seems easier to get one’s head around. Ok, there is this huge lump of useless stuff that is growing out of control – let’s take it out. That seems sensible, relatively clean and hopefully treatable. There is of course the risk that this mass has spawned other masses somehow elsewhere, so chemotherapy or radiation – or both – may be given to go after any cousins of the tumor avoiding initial detection. All in all it sounds really disgusting and rather painful, but still focused in a way.
To make matters a bit more complicated, sometimes there are tumors that are not cancerous, which are mislabeled as “benign.” The word benign means generally kind, which any tumor seems incapable of being – when did a tumor ever do anything nice for anyone? In medical lexicon, a benign tumor is considered not harmful. But that is really not right either – sure, it may not spread all over the body but any mass of cells growing uncontrollably is problematic and, at best, unsightly. I am not an expert on the interior dimensions of one’s body, but I seem to recall reading someplace that most of the space under one’s skin is already occupied by things that need to be there. So having a large object taking up space seems as though a low-value use of real estate. Consequently, these kindhearted masses often have to come out anyway, and except for the surgeons and the hospital, that is not good for anyone. I think they should replace the term “benign tumor” with “less bad tumor but still sucky.”
Blood cancer – lymphoma and leukemia, to name some of my favorites – seems like a whole different matter. There is no one lump somewhere that can just be removed or maybe irradiated into oblivion. Last time I checked, one needs blood pretty much everywhere. In fact, oftentimes when someone is suffering from some other sort of malady, the problem is “lack of blood flow.” And it is not, apparently, possible to just run all of one’s blood through some kind of special filter to remove the extra useless cells – a kind of cancer dialysis. That would be a good idea; maybe I will focus on it after I finish writing about cancer. I am pretty good with my hands, after all.