POEM: Cancer

The crab! Oh, so apropos.
Claw, grotesque and over-sized.
This death won’t know pain or throe.
It’s tyrannically civilized.

Like a crust of frozen snow,
it girds drift, and melt ‘s unseen,
but still will grow into a floe
as host grows weak and lean.
Later becoming gaunt and sallow,
it starts work deep inside,
building out toward the shallows.
And like all who succumb to pride,
the crab builds in its own image.
It makes its host low and hard —
a fearsome face of scrimmage,
with a shell well battle-scarred.

If you can make those scars your own,
facing that hard shell the right way —
deny cold access to the bone —
the crab may be kept at bay.

BOOK REVIEW: Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of CancerThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Dr. Mukherjee describes his Pulitzer Prize winning book as a biography of cancer. If so, it’s like the biography of a master thief or a gangster. One reads it not because one finds the character in any way endearing, but one can’t help but admire the resourcefulness and indomitable spirit of the culprit. Humanity has been at war with cancer for decades, but it remains alive and well–losing ground in specific domains but gaining overall.

The book covers a period from when our technology was too crude to see at the tiny levels necessary to recognize the commonality between various forms of cancer to the present-day attempts to find treatments that can target cancer cells without attacking good cells—a challenging prospect. The implication of that last sentence is that the cure might be as damning as the disease, and this has often proven to be the case. It’s often a race to see whether the cancer can be killed before the treatment kills the patient. This has been the case with radiation, radical surgeries, and various forms of chemotherapy that are toxic to good cells as well as bad. While the book ends on a hopeful note about more targeted treatment, cancer has not gone gently into that good night.

While the book covers a broad period, the bulk of its pages are devoted to the latter half of the 20th century. That’s when the war on cancer got serious and the science became advanced enough to move beyond crude approaches like radical mastectomies. Our understanding of chemistry, pharmacology, and biology reached a point at which cures were no longer pie-in-the-sky notions. But it wasn’t just the medical science that was more advanced, statistical methodology also reached a point at which it could answer questions that had previously been elusive. Such questions include whether smoking caused cancer—a fact that seems self-evident today, but which wasn’t as straightforward as one might think. There is also the issue of whether various treatments were actually extending the lifespans of those afflicted, which was also not as simple as one might think.

While the above discussion of science and statistics might make this book seem dreadfully boring, this isn’t the case. Mukherjee didn’t get the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction by being dull. The author knows the value of a story, and uses stories successfully throughout the book. There are the stories of individual patient cases, but also the story of the mass movement to raise dollars, awareness, and Congressional support to fight cancer. These true stories sometimes show the roller coaster ride that we associate with fiction—such as the apparent cure of a form of childhood leukemia that seemed promising until the kids once in remission started coming back with symptoms (the leukemia crossed the brain-blood barrier and found fertile ground on the other side of a biological wall that was meant to keep such ne’er-do-wells out.)

As one might expect of a book that covers so much ground, it’s not thin. The book’s 600 pages are arranged in 43 chapters divided into six parts. I’m sure there’s a lot more one could learn about cancer, but Mukherjee covers a lot of ground in an interesting package.

I won’t say I enjoyed the book (it’s unavoidably depressing, if hopeful) but I did find it both interesting and readable. While it might not be the sunniest and most joyous of reads, it’s one that many people should read. I’d recommend it for anyone. I would say “anyone who has been touched by cancer,” but I think that’s the same thing at this point.

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BOOK REVIEW: Warrior Pose by Brad Willis / Bhava Ram

Warrior Pose: How Yoga (Literally) Saved My LifeWarrior Pose: How Yoga (Literally) Saved My Life by Brad Willis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It may strike one as hokey that this book has one author, but two names on the byline. But, it’s apropos of an autobiography describing the fundamental transformation of a man.

Part I is the story of Brad Willis, a journalist on the rise. Willis goes from stumbling into a reporter job at one of the smallest markets in the country to being the Asia bureau foreign correspondent for NBC (National Broadcasting Corporation, one of the largest American television networks.) There’s no mention of yoga in this part of the book. It’s the story of a driven journalist covering major world events. Willis made a name for himself reporting from Soviet occupied Afghanistan in the 80’s. He tells harrowing tales of covering the drug war in Latin America, the Desert Storm Gulf War, and human trafficking in Thailand. He was also one of the few American journalists to visit North Korea. There was nowhere he wouldn’t go for the story, and he took serious risks along the way. His highly driven nature is the one point of consistency throughout the book. Willis is not a man to do anything half-assed, be it following a story or pursuing the yogic path.

Then Willis’s world was torn asunder by health problems, and this is the subject of the second part of the autobiography. First, a fall caused a hairline fracture in one his vertebrae that became crippling when Willis refused to take time off from work or to do anything for it. He couldn’t be diverted from his on-the-go foreign correspondent’s pace. Considering the dangerous places Willis traveled, it’s ironic that he initially broke his back on vacation at a Caribbean resort while closing a window during a storm. When the deterioration of his vertebrae made work untenable, he underwent a surgery that failed and left him “permanently disabled.”

Then Willis was diagnosed with a cancer in his throat that spread from his tonsils into lymph nodes. On top of the ailments themselves, Willis’s health rapidly declined because he became dependent on painkillers and other prescribed medications, and—against advisement—he began to drink alcohol in conjunction with these meds. Not only did he become hooked on the medications and alcohol, he became dependent on a back brace, a cane, and a lethargic lifestyle that kept the body from healing itself. Yoga is only briefly mentioned in passing in this part of the autobiography.

The third part is about Willis’s transformation into the yogi Bhava Ram, and his successful battle against cancer. After an intervention that resulted in drug rehab, he was referred to a pain center at Scripps that employed alternative therapies. (As an aside, the book is in part an indictment of a healthcare system in which this Pain Center both helped many people and was completely unsustainable because insurance companies could reject claims on the basis of the treatments being unconventional—but because it was staffed by medical professionals it was too expensive for most people to afford without insurance. Willis points out that there was never a rejection of any claim for any of the expensive medications or surgery that failed to helped him, but the Pain Center that put him on the road to good health went under due to failure to pay.) The Pain Center was the key to his turn around. After progressing with physical therapy, biofeedback, and—most uninsurable of all—Jin Shin Jyutsu, Willis is introduced to Yoga.

The final part charts Willis’s pursuit of yoga both through a series of teachers as well as any books that he can get his hands on. He voraciously reads up on the subject, and begins a sadhana (personal practice) that is marked by all the drive he had earlier given to his journalism career. The practice starts out rough. His muscles have atrophied, his spine curved, and he gained a tremendous amount of weight on a steak, potato, and beer diet mixed with a sedentary lifestyle. However, over the period of a couple of years, well beyond when he had been told he would be dead, he transforms his body and his mind through an intense daily practice and an adjustment of his world view.

I’d recommend this book for anyone. It will definitely be of interest to yoga practitioners—though don’t be surprised that yoga doesn’t come into play until the final quarter of the book. It could also benefit individuals with serious health problems as a way to reconsider how they approach health and treatment. Willis points out that falling into the role of victim was one of the main killers. He inherited a bad situation through an accidental fall and a case of cancer that he believed was attributable to his experience in Iraq (i.e. related to depleted uranium shells.) However, it was only when he stopped gorging on food, alcohol, and self-pity that he made a turnaround.

Even if I wasn’t interested in yoga and alternative approaches to healing, I would’ve found this to be an intensely engaging read. Willis’s journalism career gave him a unique insight into some of the major world events of the 1980s and 90’s. Willis builds lines of tension and sustains them. One wonders what will happen to his marriage to a woman who married one man (a confident and successful foreign correspondent in Hong Kong) and found herself in a marriage with another—first a lethargic addict and then a man who sunk himself hook-line-and-sinker into to the yogic lifestyle. One wonders whether his cancer remission will hold. One wonders whether he can keep clear of the pain meds and stick to the life of a yogi. I haven’t read a book that caught me this much by surprise in some time. I hadn’t heard of this book before I bought it, and didn’t have particularly high expectations (it was on sale on Kindle or I probably never would have picked it up), but I quickly became hooked.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The title of this novel about the doomed love affair of two cancer-riddled teens says a great deal, and—while lifted from Shakespeare–it’s well-chosen. The lead character is a sixteen-year-old girl named Hazel who has lungs that, as she puts it, “suck at being lungs.” She meets a boy, Augustus, at support group who is in remission, but who had a leg amputated in the process of achieving his momentary cancer-free status. Hazel takes an immediate liking to the handsome and charismatic Augustus (i.e. “Gus”), but remains standoffish because she is–to use her own words–“a grenade.” Meaning that she is going to die young, leaving her loved ones devastated. She has enough guilt about the fact that she will do this to her parents, but is unwilling to subject Gus to the same fate. Augustus, however, is an ardent and skillful wooer and eventually wears Hazel down with his winning ways and selfless acts.

This isn’t a typical read for me by a long shot. It’s written in the language of YA fiction, and it’s brutally depressing in places. Neither of the aforementioned characteristics usually draw me in. However, despite its sad subject matter, the book has a sense of humor that is essential to keep the story from crushing one’s will to continue reading. Of course, the fact that all the major young characters are dying is a cloud ever-present throughout the book. I will say it’s the most viscerally emotional novel I’ve read in some time. The only books this depressing that I’ve read recently were nonfiction works on Pol Pot era Cambodia and the Holocaust.

The strength of the book is its characters. They may be atypically intelligent, clever, and well-spoken teens, but they are intriguing, likable, and well-developed characters. Besides Hazel and Gus, there is a secondary character named Isaac who has a form of cancer that isn’t highly lethal but which does claim his eyes. Hazel and Gus are in one way polar opposites. Gus, the former star athlete, is ever concerned about his legacy, but the less ambitious Hazel believes that everyone fades into oblivion rapidly. These divergent perspectives of similarly doomed youths give one insight into the varied approaches to experiencing one’s mortality.

Another intriguing character is Peter Van Houten, a one-time American writer living in Amsterdam and the heir to a fortune off which he lives as a professional drunk. Van Houten wrote a single book about a person who dies young, which turns out to be based on his own child and is Hazel’s favorite book. Gus reads the book to please Hazel, but becomes genuinely intrigued with its ambiguous ending. Van Houten is an unpleasant character, but his book is a focal point of the storyline. The couple takes a trip to Amsterdam to try to get answers about the novel’s abrupt ending, and this experience proves to be the pivotal point in their relationship. Van Houten–jackass as he may be–does end up passing on some useful wisdom to Hazel and Gus.

I rate this book highly for being readable, captivating, and gripping. I would recommend it for those who don’t usually read YA, though the language and focus is decidedly geared toward a YA audience.

It should be noted that the film adaptation will come out this summer. For some reason they filmed it in Pittsburgh instead of the story’s real setting—and my one-time home—Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ll try not to hold this against it, too much.

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