As anyone who has spent much time around it knows, when it comes to cancer, there are shockingly few known knowns. A good three to start with, sadly for Patrick Swayze are: Don't smoke, it runs in the family and don't get it in your pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is a death sentence. So few survive it that when they do, it's difficult to credit anything but a "miracle." The one time I ever heard of anyone surviving it was a case I read about in this book, by a hospital chief and doctor on surviving an aggressive case of prostate cancer in the 1970s. He couldn't explain the pancreatic cancer patient's survival; the only variable was that the patient had adopted a strict macrobiotic diet; the doctor ended up adopting the same diet and living happily ever after, at least for the next twelve years, until the cancer came back. But that's the good news, the silver lining, to all this uncertainty about cancer: lower grade miracles occur every day. Don't take it from Mike Huckabee; I know because I saw one!
Three years ago my dad got prostate cancer. It had been misdiagnosed as a urinary tract infection for about a year, so he'd been on Cipro, which could not have been great for his immune system, but whatev. Prostate cancer is a pretty common cancer to get; in fact if you cut open all the prostates of men who'd died at a certain age you'd find prostate cancer in something like 90% of them, but it is not considered particularly scary because the prostate is something you can live without and cancer inside it generally grows slowly. That was not the case with my dad. By the time they took the biopsies, all sixteen of them came back with "Gleason" scores — the Gleason scale ranks the cancer's aggressiveness from 1 to 10 — of 8 or 9. To contrast, Rudy Giuliani's Gleasons were supposedly something like 2. Anyway! So no one wanted to remove his prostate. Straight to radiation and chemo; they all said. (They: Sloan-Kettering, Johns Hopkins, Penn.) But my dad was annoyed: he just wanted the thing out. Was that so hard? He finally went home to Georgetown, where they'd misdiagnosed it the first time and felt sufficiently bad to give him the surgery he wanted. In the meantime I bought like 10,000 boxes of macrobiotic dumplings and udon snacks. The only thing he refused to give up entirely (figures) was wine. My parents got a new puppy.
They took the prostate out. And the Gleason score had somehow gone down. Now it was a six or seven. Why? Oh who the fuck knows; the point is it had somehow not spread. Sometimes I hate telling the story, because it came on the heels of watching a close friend's two parents die of cancer within three years of one another, because I am a smoker and a sinner and I didn't deserve for that to happen and having cancer in remission is sort of like being in the mob, and having your worst enemy in prison temporarily on tax evasion. It will come back. Like acne! But with death.
Okay, so...back to the pancreas. I don't know what it does or why it makes such a willing host to cancer cells, but there's a Weird Al song that sort of explains it.
In the meantime, Patrick Swayze and all you cancer-affected people out there: our prayers, good vibes and $5 Kmart checkout counter donations to the March of Dimes or whoever are with you.
Lea Thompson: Patrick Swayze Will Be Resilient [US Magazine]