Showing 11 - 20 of 430 annotations tagged with the keyword "Cancer"

When Breath Becomes Air

Kalanithi, Paul

Last Updated: Feb-18-2016
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Paul Kalanithi, diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer when he was a neurosurgery resident at Stanford University, was faced with a decision. Should he truncate his career in neurosurgery in order to become a writer - a career he had always envisioned for himself after completing a couple of decades of neurosurgery practice? Married to Lucy Kalanithi, an internist he had met in medical school, Paul’s career and future had looked bright and promising. But as he entered his final year of a seven-year residency, symptoms of excruciating back pain and significant weight loss began. Garbed in a hospital gown, he examines his own CT scan – this is how we meet Paul at the beginning of the Prologue. He then writes of the relatively brief period of misdiagnosis prior to the CT scan. With the initial negative plain x-rays, he is started on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But breakthrough pain and continued weight loss leads to the CT. Paul the physician understands the death sentence the images portend; Paul the patient is just beginning his journey. The diagnosis and treatment cause him to reassess his decisions about his life, to decide to father a child even though he knows he will never see the child grow up, and ultimately to write a memoir, essentially for his daughter.

Paul had graduated from Stanford with undergraduate and master’s degrees which reflected his dual love of literature and science. He combined these in a second master’s degree from Cambridge University in the history and philosophy of science and medicine before attending Yale for his medical degree. He and his wife return to California for residencies. The book is largely a blend of his dual interests: a deep and abiding love and faith in literature and how words can reveal truths, and a passion for the practice and science of neurosurgery. The rupture of fatal illness into his life interrupts his dogged trajectory towards an academic medical career, and, like all ruptures, confounds expectations and reorients priorities.

The book has five parts: a foreword by physician-writer Abraham Verghese, who notes the stunning prose Paul produced for an initial article in The New York Times and exhorts the reader to “Listen to Paul” (page xix); a brief prologue; two parts by Paul Kalanithi (Part I: In Perfect Health I Begin, and Part II: Cease Not till Death); and a stunning, heart-breaking epilogue by Lucy Kalanithi. In the epilogue, written with as many literary references and allusions as her husband’s writing includes, Lucy provides the reader with a gentle and loving portrait of her husband in his final days, reaffirms his joy in their daughter Cady, and chronicles how she kept her promise to her dying husband to shepherd his manuscript into print.

The bulk of the book is memoir – a childhood in Arizona and an aversion to pursuing a life in medicine due to his hard-working cardiologist-father, experiences at Stanford which eventually led him to reverse his decision to avoid a medical career, the stages of his medical career and caring for patients, and his devastating cancer. Though initially responsive to treatment—and indeed, the treatment enables him to complete his residency and decide to father a child with Lucy—the cancer is, as prognosticated from the diagnosis, fatal.

What makes this memoir so much more than an exercise in memory and a tribute to the herculean effort to write while sapped by cancer and its treatment, are the philosophical turns, the clear love of words and literature, and the poignancy of the writing. He begins reading fiction and nonfiction again: “I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again. The privilege of direct experience had led me away from literary and academic work, yet now I felt that to understand my own direct experiences, I would have to translate them back into language…I needed words to go forward.” (pp 148-9) Paul’s writing ends with what is arguably some of the most poetic prose ever written. He concludes by speaking directly to his infant daughter: “When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” (p. 199)

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The Death of Cancer

DeVita, Vincent

Last Updated: Feb-04-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

The book offers a detailed account by one of the nation’s leading cancer researchers of developments in chemotherapy over the past several decades, as well as the recent history of surgical and radiation treatments in the “war on cancer”—a term he resisted at first but finally embraced with full understanding of its implications.  The narrative touches on many of the writer’s own struggles over economic, political, and moral implications of what a NYT reviewer described as a “take-no-prisoners” approach to cure.  He also includes stories about disagreements with other researchers that give some insight into the acrimony that is part of high-stakes science.  At the NIH and later as head of the National Cancer Institute, DeVita faced many decisions about distribution of resources, how much to put patients at risk, and whom to include in clinical trials.  He provides his own point of view on those controversies frankly.  Not much mention is made of the causes of cancer, of nutritional or other complementary approaches, or the environmental factors in the spread of cancer. The strong focus on the book is on the development of chemotherapeutic treatments that have succeeded in raising survival rates, though few current statistics are cited.

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Side Effects May Vary

Murphy, Julie

Last Updated: Jan-07-2016
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

At 16, Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, and is given a dire prognosis.  Assuming she has months to live, she undergoes chemotherapy with the support of her lifelong friend, Harvey, whose frank and deepening love she is uncertain about returning.  On days when she has enough energy and the nausea abates, she works on a "bucket list" with Harvey's sometimes reluctant help, since the list includes revenge on two classmates who have hurt and humiliated her.  When, months into treatment, she goes into unexpected full remission, Alice has to come to terms with the consequences of some of her revenge strategies and reassess the depth of a relationship with Harvey that may last far longer than she thought she had.  Given an opportunity to choose life on new terms, she considers those new terms in a more adult way, chastened, focused, and grateful for a chance to make new choices.

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The Not-Dead and the Saved

Clanchy, Kate

Last Updated: Nov-23-2015
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Two individuals share a struggle that is grueling, depressing, and whose outcome is probably preordained. The Mother (divorced, constantly tired, and fearful of sickness) is "not a good choice for the parent of a chronic invalid" (p. 168). The Son (smallish, clever, and born with some kind of tumor) has previously had an organ transplant (most likely kidney).

Their trek through the realm of sickness unfurls in seven scenes - all hospital wards and finally Hospice. First, the Son is an adolescent in a pediatric ward where the Machine (presumably renal dialysis) prevents his death. There he spots a baby that he dubs a "Not-Dead." She has multiple birth defects due to a chromosomal abnormality and is kept alive by technology. He intuits that while not dead, the baby is not "properly alive" either. He muses about his own status. His mother is always bedside, propping up his spirits.

Next he is in the ICU and then transferred to a medical floor. He receives a blood transfusion after disconnecting the Machine in a likely suicide attempt. Sometime later, he is back in the pediatric ward after receiving an organ transplant. The Son gets admitted to the Cardio-Respiratory unit for a severe infection. In and out of hospitals, he enrolls in college but quits. After getting married, he joins a commune of survivors of medical illnesses known as "The Saved." This collective lives on a farm and members avoid any contact with family.

The Son's health further deteriorates. He is hospitalized in terminal condition. By this time, he has his own child, a 14-month-old boy named Jaybird. In the oncology ward, doctors diagnose three tumors in the Son's brain but he refuses any treatment (surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy). He is moved to Hospice. His absent Father comes to visit and comfort him. When the Son dies, it is the Mother who is alone with him. The Son's wife, Father, Jaybird, and members of The Saved commune are all asleep in the Day Room. Only after the Son dies are the names of the Mother and the Son revealed: Julia and Jonathon.

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Summary:

A mother (termed Mother in the story) discovers a blood clot in her young son's diaper and wonders "so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?" This discovery leads to a diagnosis of Wilms' tumor--a childhood malignancy of the kidney, and surgery to remove the diseased kidney.The parents are thrust into a new world--the world of pediatric oncology ("peed onk") and meet the Surgeon, the Oncologist, and the other anxious parents waiting in the Tiny Tim Lounge of the pediatric ward. Everyone is named by their relationship to the Mother or by their profession--Baby, Husband, Anesthesiologist.The reader is privy to the inner thoughts of the Mother--her anger, denial, protective instincts and dark ironic vision. The Mother is also a writer and advised to take notes of this odyssey in case they need money to pay the medical costs. She feels alien to the culture of the pediatric ward--only her artsy friends understand her hell. Notes one (Green Hair) "Everyone's so friendly here. Is there someone in this place who isn't doing all this airy, scripted optimism--or are people like that the only people here?"When the Mother is given the option of no post-operative chemotherapy for Baby, the Mother grabs the chance to leave the hospital, clutching Baby, and says "I never want to see any of these people again." The piece ends on the rhetorical and ironic question--where's the money for these notes, for the story?

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This thoughtful essay from the author of The Emperor of All Maladies expounds on information, uncertainty, and imperfection in the medical setting. The author recalls witnessing a difficult operation when he was a medical student. The attending surgeon admonished the operating room team, "Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information" (p.5). This essay is constructed around that idea as the author shares three personal principles that have guided him throughout his medical career.
     Law One: A strong intuition is much more powerful than a weak test. (p. 22)
     Law Two: "Normals" teach us rules; "outliers" teach us laws. (p. 38)
     Law Three: For every perfect medical experiment, there is a perfect human bias. (p.54)

He views the medical world as a "lawless, uncertain" place and stresses that biomedicine is a "softer science" than chemistry or physics. Clinical wisdom, in his opinion, is imperfect, fluid, and abstract whereas the knowledge base of other basic sciences is concrete, fixed, and certain. He laments, "My medical education had taught me plenty of facts, but little about the spaces that live between facts" (p. 6).

His own "laws" of medicine are actually laws of imperfection. Clinical diagnosis can be thought of as a "probability game" where human bias creeps into the process. And ultimately common sense trumps pure statistical reasoning. Woven into the discussion are considerations on a variety of topics - children with autism, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, genomics, radical masectomy, and randomized, double-blind studies. Nods to Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher), Thomas Bayes (Bayes' Theorem), and Johannes Kepler (Kepler's Laws of planetary motion) fit in nicely with the thrust of the treatise.


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Not God: A Play in Verse

Straus, Marc

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Not God is a "play in verse" with two characters, a hospitalized patient and the patient's doctor. The scare quotes indicate the fluid quality of Not God, which the author originally conceived as a sequence of poems spoken in a patient's voice. Subsequently, he added the doctor poems (monologues) to create a "dialog" between the two voices. Once again, scare quotes suggest the atypical quality of this dialogue, since the two characters express different feelings and perspectives on the situation, but do not directly address one another. The play version has received several performances at colleges and small theaters.The patient speaks first in a monologue that begins "A man's cough bounces down the hallway / like pick up sticks... " and ends with "I am here two weeks." (p. 7) It soon becomes evident that he/she has cancer and is receiving chemotherapy. The doctor has changed this person's life by speaking "one word," after which "nothing / would ever be the same again." (p. 10). The patient is knowledgeable, accepting of his/her condition, a keen observer with a good sense of humor, as in "Doldrums" (p. 19) and "Cricket" (p. 23), and a person who affirms life in spite of adversity. The doctor is burdened with the power of medical knowledge. In particular, he understands the deadly meaning of signs and symptoms: "We say / excess water and swelling of the belly, knowing / full well... / an ovarian cancer is almost certain." (p. 33) But the meaning this represents is chaos: there is nothing humane or transcendent about cancer. Unlike his baseball card collection in childhood ("Shoebox," p. 35), cancer is neither confined nor orderly. In the second act, the patient sympathizes with the doctor whose "head is so cluttered / with obligatory data." Paradoxically, the doctor must be protected because he is "filled with dying." (p. 41) The doctor becomes angry with the burden, "Why / ask me a question that only God can answer?" (p. 49) and cries out that his work is "alchemy, / potions and witches' brews." (p. 54) In the end, while dying, the patient imagines "a bridge that can cross / the Atlantic." (p. 68), while the doctor speaks a prayer, "The word cure, dear God, is always / near my lips, though I have been constrained from / saying it aloud." (p. 66)

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One Word

Straus, Marc

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

In this collection (80 pages), Marc Straus speaks of the inadequacy of communication and knowledge in medicine; the pauses, the distance, the hesitations. You think you know what you are doing, "But no, they always ask the question / I never knew." ("The Log of Pi") "The question / might be so simple, so clear / that you’re unprepared to answer." ("Questions and Answers") Though words are in one way inadequate, the medical word carries great power: " . . . I knew that moment / I would say one word for her and nothing / would ever be the same again." (One Word, annotated in this database.)The poet comes to understand that he represents both sides of medicine, both the detached and distant Dr. Gold, and the warm and trustworthy Dr. Green. (See annotation of Dr. Gold & Dr. Green) Unfortunately, this knowledge only comes about after the patient has died ("Dr. Gold & Dr. Green, II"). We learn from experience, sometimes too late.

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One Word

Straus, Marc

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

The speaker reflects that "life is sometimes reduced / to a single word . . . . " He remembers one incident at a bus stop, another interviewing a man "for a job in my lab." Then there was the time a woman "walked / into my office for one thing . . . . " He discovered a "fullness" in her neck and knew that the word he would say to her, the one word, would change her life: "nothing / would ever be the same again."

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The author, an experienced surgeon, believes that we will be less frightened by the prospect of death if we understand it as a normal biologic process. He points out that 80 percent of deaths in this country now occur in hospitals and are therefore "sanitized," hidden from view, and from public comprehension. He describes the death process for six major killers: heart disease, stroke, AIDS, cancer, accidents/suicide, and Alzheimer's disease.But the power of the book is in its intensely personal depiction of these events and in the lessons which Nuland draws from his experiences. The message is twofold: very few will "die with dignity" so that (1) it behooves us to lead a productive LIFE of dignity, (2) physicians, patients, and families should behave appropriately to allow nature to take its course instead of treating death as the enemy to be staved off at any cost. Only then will it be possible for us to die in the "best" possible way--in relative comfort, in the company of those we love/who love us.

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