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Chemo Again--Stuntz

Last week, my latest and I hope last round of chemo began; unless things change, the plan is to keep going til mid-December and then quit for good.  I feel lousy:  low-grade nausea is a constant companion, and sometimes it isn't low-grade.  One of the drugs gives me a swollen and sore mouth, which makes eating, drinking, and talking painful.  (No doubt my speech has often pained my students.  Maybe this is payback.)  And, of course, there is the onset of Chemo Brain, just when classes are about to begin.  (What was I talking about again?)


One day, I suspect we will see today's chemotherapy as akin to leeches and bloodletting for patients thought to have "bad humours" in their blood:  earlier versions of the kind of medicine that kills the disease by killing the patient.  Of course, the comparison isn't quite fair, and it seems ungrateful on my part to make it.  These treatments are not killing me--on the contrary, they may be keeping me alive.  I should be thankful, and I am, for the skilled and decent men and women who supervise my drug regimen.  Whatever life I have left, I owe to their competence and commitment.  I can't say enough good things about them.  Still, it's a strange enterprise:  progress happens, but it always feels like regress.

In my many trips to the Yawkey Center's eighth floor--the floor where chemo infusions happen--I've noticed something interesting:  I'm one of the youngest patients there.  There look to be a fair number of patients in their 60s, more in their 70s, and some who might be in their 80s--all lining up to get the latest batch of poison in their veins.  That mystifies me.  Even for someone my age (I turned 50 this summer), it seems a close call, cost-wise--the drugs are hideously expensive--and health-wise, to take a chance on a few more years of life in exchange for the certainty of several months of hell.  If I were ten or twenty years older, the call would seem easy:  I'd tell my oncologist he can save his chemo regimens for younger patients, and give me the kind of medicines that make cancer-ridden bodies feel better, not worse.  Some days, I'm tempted to tell him that now.  Have we become so focused on longevity above all else that longer lives with large doses of misery seem better than shorter and happier ones?  It seems crazy to me.  But maybe I'm the one who's crazy.


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Comments ( 5 )

Hang in there Bill and know we're praying for you.

In response to your question "Have we become so focused on longevity above all else that longer lives with large doses of misery seem better than shorter and happier ones?", maybe we're just fearful of death.. postponing it as long as we can, even if it means "large doses of misery".

I hope the start of the treatment is going well. May God of peace be with you.

I appreciate you candidness about your illness, Bill. Please know that I regularly pray for you. You give us a greater appreciation for what we enjoy each day - but often assume this is the way it always will be. George McFarland

Bill, like the other commenters, I have been praying for you and that God can fulfill his plan in all this. One (great) outcome is that the treatment does the miraculous and you have a long and distinguished career at Harvard. Another is that even though God will only give you a little time, He has planned a few things for you to do, and you will find what they are and get them done.

But another is that the chemo is not for you (directly), but for those that follow you. That the doctors and researchers will learn from you and someone struck by cancer in the future will have more time because of what you are enduring.

And I wonder if that is something that occurs to the 70 and 80 year olds. That they are enduring this now in the hope that when their grandchildren are in their 50s, cancer is something that is more easily controlled, in a way that does not cause so much injury.

Dear William- I stumbled upon this website in a way, and have enjoyed the commentary from you and your colleague, David Skeel. It is refreshing to see a blog of this nature.

With certainty, add my prayers to the long list. On a personal note, I am both evangelical Protestant and part of the Harvard community, and work on solid tumor therapies. If you don't believe your oncologist, believe me, there are exciting drugs on the horizon; stay strong in the meantime- and know we are working hard so you can continue making an enormous impact on countless lives. When reading through this blog, I was so gracefully reminded of Galatians 5 ... the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love... Indeed, no matter what our circumstance is, without even trying, you inspirationally remind us all of this.