Wednesday, March 28, 2007

March 28, 2007 - Only Human

Today, another high-profile political figure has brought cancer into the headlines. Just days after Elizabeth Edwards' revelation, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow has revealed that his colon cancer has returned, and has spread to his liver and other parts of his abdomen. In 2005, he had surgery to remove his entire colon, then six months of chemotherapy. Now, he's facing unspecified further treatments and surgery.

Like Elizabeth, Tony's a fighter. "I'll be back," he's vowed. For now, Tony's assistant will be handling the press briefings, while he's at the proverbial undisclosed location, weighing his treatment options.

According to press reports, Tony's one of those unfortunate people who's on the losing end of the genetic lottery. His mother died of colon cancer when he was 17. This family medical history has made his doctors hyper-vigilant – they've sent him for scans every two to three months, in recent years. But these most recent tests have only alerted them to an outcome that was already genetically predetermined. While the doctors haven't used the word "incurable" in his case, they've made it clear that only a small percentage of patients with Tony's diagnosis and staging are ever cured.

One news article points out that the seeds of Tony's recent recurrence were probably already planted, even before his 2005 surgery. The malignant cells were already growing in his body. They were just too few in number to show up on the scans. That's one of the frustrating features of cancer: it only takes one strand of DNA with its cancer-switch in the "on" position, to start the disease's progression. By the time symptoms appear, malignant cells already number in the millions.

We imagine our bodies as static: that we have the same colon, or lungs, or liver as we had in our teens. Yet, the reality is, we are dynamic creatures. Our cells are constantly dying and being reborn, at a furious rate. Guided by their incredibly intricate DNA blueprints, our bodies are constantly reinventing themselves. From time to time, one of those reinvention experiments blows up in the laboratory – and that's cancer.

More than most Press Secretaries, Tony is a media figure in his own right. He was a Fox News commentator and talk-show host before the Bush Administration tapped him to be the President's media point man. He's one of those cool, calm, collected, always-in-control individuals. He carries himself well in his tailored suits, and responds to the pit bulls of the Washington press corps with dignity.

They say that, as Tony was being introduced to the press corps for the first time, someone noticed a yellow "Livestrong" bracelet from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, peeking out from under the cuff of his sleeve. When asked about it, he teared up a little. "That's because I had cancer last year," he replied.

Sadly, Tony's use of the past tense was premature. He didn't know it at the time, but he still had cancer as he uttered those words. The question for the future is whether his condition can be managed. I certainly hope so.

This story, and others like it, remind me I'm not alone. There are millions of us cancer survivors out there, and we feel a certain kinship with one another. We're only human. And, as human beings facing this disease, we need to stand together.

Live strong, Tony.

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