Saturday, August 09, 2014

August 9, 2014 - A Promising Discovery

"I have seen the future of cancer treatment, and its name is... Silvestrol?”

I’m not qualified to make such a claim, of course, but maybe some knowledgeable researchers who are would go so far as to say such a thing. There’s a bit of hyperbole in that statement, but it’s an eye-catching way to point out a new discovery that could be a really significant development in the long term, for blood-cancer patients.

According to an article the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has been sending around, Silvestrol is a compound derived from “a plant called Aglaia foveolata, which is native to Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia.”

Rather than attacking a certain well-known cancer-causing gene, this stuff prevents it from being produced at all.

The tree is an endangered species, whose habitat is threatened by development.

An older article, chronicling the substance’s discovery, is here.

This reminds me of a movie that came out a while back, Medicine Man (1992), starring Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco. Two courageous botanists fight off developers, whose bulldozers are about to ravage a section of Amazonian rain forest where a promising cancer drug has just been discovered. They bicker then fall in love, of course. (Hey, it's Hollywood, what do you expect?)

There’s more on the website of Memorial Sloan-Kettering (which is where Silvestrol’s treatment potential is being investigated)). “Blocking the production of key cancer genes is a completely new way of treating cancer,” says Dr. Hans-Guido Wendel, a Memorial Sloan-Kettering cancer biologist. “That is exciting, and it also means we have a lot to learn about it.”

I will likely be years before any patients can be treated with this new drug, but its discovery is certainly something to celebrate.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

August 7, 2014 — Lessons from Valerie

Valerie Harper was a fixture on TV sitcoms when I was growing up. From her role as Mary Richards' BFF on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to her own spinoff, Rhoda, to a host of other TV and stage roles, her brand of wacky, self-deprecating humor has had a long run.

Now, her days are filled with thoughts of something decidedly not funny: lung cancer, metastasized to the meninges, the membrane surrounding the brain. She’s receiving experimental treatments, hoping for the best and trying to get the most out of every day.

She never smoked. Although many people hear the words “lung cancer” and say to themselves, “Oh, another smoker,” that’s certainly not true of every lung-cancer patient. In Valerie’s case, it’s probably in her genes. Her mother, also a non-smoker, succumbed to the same disease.

A recent article in the AARP Magazine describes Valerie’s active way of engaging the disease. Here are a few things that have worked for her:

1) Visualization: “She has also been practicing imagery, envisioning a tiny Tinker Bell-like version of herself moving through her meninges, tapping her cancer cells with a magical finger. ‘They then become glowing little good cells,’ she explains with a giggle, ‘or, if they’re not willing to give up their cancer-ness, they just turn into white lights. I talk to them, saying, “Listen, you guys, this is dumb. We could live together. But you can’t keep growing and crowding out the other cells. You’re killing the host!”’”

Visualization didn’t do much for me when I was receiving cancer treatment, but I know it’s a technique many survivors swear by. What I find especially healthy about Valerie’s approach is that she doesn’t treat the cancer cells like invaders, like some bacteria. She’s fully aware that her cancer cells are part of her own body. They’ve just gone rogue. If she’s able, by focused thinking, to influence the behavior of those cells, so much the better.

Note that she doesn’t employ the familiar military metaphor here. She’s not “battling” cancer. She’s accepting it as part of her own body, a malfunction in her genes. She’s trying to reason with it. Whether or not her visualization exercises are having any real effect, who’s to say? We do know the mind-body barrier is somewhat porous, though — so, why not?

2) Humor: As one might expect of a comedian, Valerie lightens the situation with humor: “‘I’m past my expiration date,’ Harper jokes as she addresses a small crowd.... “But really, I am holding my own, as you can see. My motormouth has not stopped! Seriously,’ she continues, ‘what I have is not curable. That’s not the way with this disease, apparently. But who knows? This diagnosis makes you live one day at a time, and that’s what everyone should do: Live moment to moment to moment.’”

Note the realism in Valerie’s remarks. I’m sure she hasn’t stopped hoping for a miracle, but she’s not planning on one. There a real centeredness about that approach: living, as fully and intentionally as possible, in the now. Humor helps ground us, moving our thoughts away from future dread and back into the present.

As Valerie’s former Mary Tyler Moore Show co-star, Betty White, says of her: “She’s kept her sense of humor and balance. My beloved husband Allen Ludden [who died from stomach cancer in 1981] had that same attitude, and I swear it added a year we wouldn’t have had.”

3) Gratitude: “‘Look, I was 73 when I got this news,’ says Harper. ‘Not 43. Not 28 with little children. I don’t want to leave my daughter or this doll of a husband. But I have to be realistic. I’ve had a lot of great stuff — spectacular stuff — happen to me. I’ve got to not be a pig about life.’ She tosses her head back and laughs.”

That calls to mind the line from Proverbs 31:25, the description of the “capable wife,” who’s so much more than merely an appendage to her husband, a wise and strong woman:
“Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.”

Some people, dealing with a discouraging cancer prognosis, would focus only on that, but Valerie explains how she’s focusing on the goodness she’s enjoyed. She’s determined “not to be a pig about life.”

According to the article, Valerie has accomplished all this without relying on resources of faith (at least, not faith in the conventional sense). She’s not a religious believer, but has pursued self-help programs from the human-potential movement.

Visualization, humor, gratitude: these are resources anyone can tap into. Of course, from my perspective, I’d say faith takes us far beyond any strength we can summon up from within ourselves, or by relying on loved ones. There’s no reason, though, to belittle resources such as these, which are formidable.

We can be grateful to Valerie for being such a good teacher, and sharing her inner life so freely.