Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Which Alicia Explains Why She's Crazy Enough to Try and Run A Marathon Despite Being Very, Very Slow

Cancer, man. Cancer sucks. Cancer is the number one killer, near as I can tell, of people I am related to by blood besides sheer old age or accident. I have lost two great-grandparents, one great-aunt, and an uncle. My grandmother is more than, gosh, fifteen year survivor of cancer that is either classified as bone cancer and breast cancer (it was cancer of the breast bone, you see--I'm pretty sure the final word was that it was bone cancer.)

My father lost a little brother to cancer when that brother, who would have been my Uncle Dean, was just a baby. Dean was sick when he was born. It was the early sixties. There wasn't much anyone could do. With modern medical advances, I'm still not sure how much could be done if he was born today. Thinking about that absolutely breaks my heart--that a child can be born that sick, and with fifty years of medical advances, I'm still not sure we could have saved him.

No baby should have to face death before his life has really started.

And no parent should have to face watching their child's life flicker out that fast.

We had a lymphoma scare with one of my brothers two years ago. Thankfully, they were able to determine that while what he has is almost always associated with lymphoma, it isn't lymphoma--and that while it is irritating and painful to him to have it when it flares, it's not life threatening. They don't know why he has it and they can't really treat it without resorting to drugs that have a host of side effects that may be worse than the condition itself--they can only really watch and study it right now.

That's the crux of it, isn't it? There's still so much we just don't know, so much we just can't effectively treat and so many people we can't save. We don't even fully understand what makes cells go haywire.

I think I have a special empathy for how it might feel to have your cells turn on you because I have an autoimmune disease. I have Hashimoto's hypothyroidism, which is thankfully easy to treat, and I respond extremely well to treatment. Effectively, my immune system destroyed my thyroid. Doctors don't know why my white blood cells suddenly decided my thyroid is the enemy and began to turn it into a non-functioning lump of scar tissue. They can't stop it. All they can do is give me a supplement to replace the thyroid hormones my body no longer produces. Every day, for the rest of of my life, I will take a pill first thing in the morning. Every six months to a year, I will need blood work to determine whether my dosage is still correct. Most of the time I shrug this off as not being a very big deal. Hashimoto's, in its most severe forms, is a pretty scary illness but it almost never gets that bad in the developed world these days because it is easy and inexpensive to treat. I got pretty sick (and I put on twenty pounds, which I am still fighting to get off) but I also got better pretty fast. Even when my insurance has not covered my medications, it's ten dollars at Target for a three month supply. Almost anyone can afford that.

It still bothers me that it happened. It bothers me that the system that was designed most intimately to protect me instead betrayed me. In my darkest moments (thankfully rare) I have wondered if my immune system decided I wasn't worth protecting anymore; that I should be attacked instead. You can't live without thyroid hormone.

Those moments are rare. Most of the time, I know what I am, and what I am is very lucky.

I am lucky that the condition I have, although it can't be reversed, can be treated with ease. I am lucky it is cheap to medicate. I'm lucky that although my immune system misfired, what it decided to attack could be compensated for. I'm lucky it probably won't get any worse than it already is, I'm lucky that I will live a normal, healthy, long life despite it. I'm lucky that my brother wasn't facing death at seventeen, although I had to watch him try to deal with the fact that he might be while I grappled with those dark moments of wondering why my own body had turned against me. We were sick at about the same time.

In all the ways I'm lucky...those are the ways that people with leukemia, lymphoma and blood cancers are NOT lucky. Their medications, if they even work on them, are not available as a cheap generic at Target. Chemotherapy SUCKS. Doctors don't know how to stop what they have...and for them, that's a matter of life and death, not a matter of "Gee, popping this pill is really annoying."

I decided that I wanted to try and help cancer patients because of my own experience with an autoimmune disease. I decided on the Leukemia and the Lymphoma Society because of my brother, and our scare that he might very well have lymphoma.

If I can raise a little money and the slightest bit of awareness for LLS by agreeing to run 26.2 miles, I consider it an easy bargain.

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