Nothing is ever as simple as all dark or all light, especially when cancer is involved. As a cancer patient, or as a loved one alongside said cancer patient, “relapse” brings both a dread of the future and a resolve to overcome any hurdle, while “remission” offers a liberating relief but also a back-of-mind unease about if or when “relapse” may show.
Driving down I-95 with Dad to my (former) place of employment brought that same mix of dark and light. Our stalwart oncologist in CT, Dr. Todd Alekshun, had exhausted the options available to treat my dad’s NSCLC (Non Small Cell Lung Cancer). He thus recommended we get 2nd opinions from doctors who are at the medical research forefront for NSCLC. With that, we booked two appointments: one at the cancer hospital where I used to work and one at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (also a place where I used to work but subsequently “boomeranged” back on Oct 1st, 2019).
As we drove during that unusually tranquil and paradoxically sunny day out of New England, my mind darkened by what I expected to be the prognosis; I knew from reading all I could about my dad’s cancer, as well as current and possible therapeutics, that the cancer had caught up and had started to overtake the bleeding edge technology that were the new NSCLC treatment at the time. Yet, I also had a macabre hope, feeling even a little prideful by being about to show my dad “this is where I work; this is also where we can work to fight off your cancer,” even though I only work in fundraising data science, far from anything related to scientific or clinical research.
We finally got there and parked in the garage next to the hospital. Flashing my employee ID to my former colleagues, the friendly support staff and I shared mutual smiles and head-nods of confidence. Even the obviously overworked resident taking my dad’s history and vitals seemed optimistic.
Unfortunately, all that positivity was for naught. The star of this show, our doctor consult, had entered. In an almost made-for-television fashion stereotypical of rock-star surgeon actors, she sternly reprimanded our formerly upbeat resident over some notes in the most demeaning way. As he scurried out the door, our consult turned to us and delivered the prognosis that I had most expected and dreaded.
As if trying to climb out of the ensuing purgatory of silence and reflexively trying to shield my dad from the impact of her words, I blurted, “we have an appointment with Dr. Shaw up in Boston.”
To this day I have not forgotten her incredulous response:
“You don’t need to do that. She’ll tell you the same thing. Why don’t you just take that time off and enjoy the afternoon?”
She seemed insulted as if her from-God’s-mouth-to-our-ears shouldn’t need confirmation. Without ceremony she left the office. I don’t remember anything else from that day as I had fallen back into the pit of despair. I only remember that the consult itself lasted less than 15 minutes with us being in the building for just over an hour, that the support staff apologized to us about the lack of patient parking validation, and that the hour of parking in that garage cost us $60.
With heavier hearts but on an equally paradoxically sunny day, we went to see Dr. Alice Shaw, a doctor researcher who is part of an elite team at Dana-Farber under what is now Mass General Brigham and who is also a faculty member of Harvard Medical School. At once similar to and different from our previous experience, an upbeat but not seemingly overworked resident took my dad’s history and vitals. Noticing her obvious pregnancy, my dad uncouthly but still charmingly asked, “how far along are you?” The resident cheerfully responded, “I’m just starting my third trimester.” And the secret behind the cheer passed onto us. She didn’t need to be there; she wanted to be there.
With that, Dr. Shaw walked into the office. To this day, I have also never forgotten what happened. Instead of shooing her resident away, Dr. Shaw and her resident consulted and collaborated with each other, both while getting up to speed with my dad’s cancer journey and while searching through a clinical trials database, hunting for any appropriate experimental treatments for my dad. I’ve also never forgotten what Dr. Shaw said:
“I’m sorry we don’t have treatment options for you now, but let’s see if we can find out what’s causing your cancer to progress.”
The prognosis was the same, but it felt as if we walked from midnight in a maelstrom to midday in a meadow.
Why am I walking for Dana-Farber and The Jimmy Fund in this year’s “Walk Your Way” roughly four years after my dad’s passing? I think a presentation by Dr. Bill Pirl, Vice Chair for the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, during one of our monthly all-staff meetings for the Division of Philanthropy spurred me to do so. When he mentioned seeing an uptick of more depressed and more isolated patients during the COVID crisis, I was reminded of the dark that cancer casts, from actual shadows in x-rays and MRIs to the despair and hopelessness felt by cancer patients and their loved ones. However, I am simultaneously reminded of the spotlights that shine on said shadow-casting cancer in the form of people working tirelessly here at Dana-Farber from the scientific, clinical, and patient care experts to your friendly neighborhood analyst in computational philanthropy.
Oh, by the way, there is parking validation for patients at the garage on Jimmy Fund Way. It’s complimentary for up to 1 hour, $7 for 1 to 1.5 hours, and ONLY $12 from 3 to 24 hours. 😊
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” – Ann Frank