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… in which a columnist says goodbye … for now

by Brian McKenna

Brian McKenna

“You’ve got two melanomas,” Dr. Breen, my oncologist, told me. “You have a 70 percent chance of surviving the next five years.”


But survive I have. On May 14, 2002, I celebrated my 10th anniversary of being cancer free. For this I am most indebted to my loving wife, Joy, and my good friend Jim. And, I believe, to my own persistence, perhaps a relic of my Irish forebears. My life over the past decade has been a soul journey. There’s nothing like the fear of death to give you a swift kick in the bottom.

The dark pigments of melanoma are tricky and unpredictable. In 2001 the dread disease struck 50,000 in the United States. There were 7,000 deaths from it that year. It’s the fastest growing cancer in the world. In 1950 it struck about 1 in 150. Today one in 75 of you will get it. Caught early there’s no reason for a single person to die from it.

So far it was caught early enough for John McCain, Troy Aikman, Clint Eastwood and Sam Donaldson. But sadly it was not for Maureen Reagan, Bob Marley and rising folk-musician star Eva Cassidy, gone at 33.

I was diagnosed just six months after arriving in Michigan from Philadelphia to pursue my Ph.D. in medical anthropology at MSU. That’s a field whose origins are in studying alternate healing systems across the world, from shamanism and herbal medicine to osteopathy and homeopathy here in the United States. Ironically, if I was going to get cancer there wasn’t a better field to study.

In anthropology we learn that mainstream medicine is quite limited in its abilities to prevent and restore health. But the official advertising is very good. Technological advances in areas such as organ replacement, magnetic resonance imagery and in vitro-fertilization are frequently cited as evidence that U.S. medicine is “the best in the world.” Emergency medicine, celebrated on TV dramas like “ER” is a triumphant metaphor for a culture oriented to speed and beholden to a belief in technological salvation.

There is a wealth of evidence that sociocultural, environmental, psychological, political, economic and biological factors interact at any one time in either disturbing or enhancing health. Tens of millions resort to self-care and alternative medicine. And thousands of medical professionals break ranks to document the relationships of social support to cancer survival – see Spiegel’s classic study of metastatic breast cancer patients – or to show the links of environmental toxins to cancer – as the full page ads in the New York Times by Mt. Sinai Hospital evidenced two weeks ago.
Ambiguity and uncertainty are the rules when it comes to understanding health and disease.

Which makes Monday’s news all the more troubling. The Lansing State Journal, mimicking the media’s tendency nationally toward shallow disease-of-the-day reporting, headlined a front-page article, “Gene blamed for skin cancer [melanoma].” Quoting from a study in the journal Nature, the mainstream press announced that the gene – discovered as part of the Cancer Genome project – is blamed for 70 percent of cases of melanoma, my cancer. The press reported that the gene underwent a “spontaneous mutation.”

New columnist

Beginning next week, Dave Dempsey will write the Health & Environment column. Dempsey is policy adviser for the Michigan Environmental Council, a Lansing-based coalition for over 50 environmental organizations. Dempsey was program director and state director of Clean Water Action from 1991 to 1994. President Clinton appointed him to serve on the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, on which he served from 1991 until last year. He is the author of “Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader,” an environmental history of the state. Dempsey is a lifelong resident of Michigan. He has a B.A. from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in resource development from MSU. His column will appear biweekly.

The mainstream media thus reinforced several central biomedical assumptions about cancer etiology: the idea that in most cases, cancer is caused by just one microscopic, biological element that is largely out of your control.

Whether or not there is a genetic predisposition to melanoma, the discovery says nothing about the specific conditions that make a cancer gene get turned on inappropriately (by toxins, radiation and so on), or the likelihood that various forms of treatment (nutritional, psychological, social) will help cure you. It says nothing about the personality features linked to getting cancer or the felt experience of having the disease, which cancer researcher Lydia Temoshok carefully documents in her excellent, “The Type C Connection, the Behavioral Links to Cancer and Your Health.”

In her several government-supported studies Temoshok documented that melanoma patients tend to be overly compliant to external authority, appeasing to others, emotionally non-expressive, other-directed and self-sacrificing. She found that those melanoma patients who are able to learn to get in touch with their anger, openly question external authority, more fully express their emotions and become inner-directed by articulating a better defined “meaning of life” were more likely to survive their melanomas than those who remained non-expressive. This leader within the alternative cancer movement is but one of many scientists in the social medicine school of theorist Aaron Antonovsky, who essentially argued that – in addition to social support and resources – we all need to have a mental “sense of coherence” about our lives to ward off the “noises” of our environment. It’s called “salutogenesis.”

In addition, Temoshok and thousands of other scientists have shown how environmental carcinogens in our air, water and food as well as viruses and radiation are factors that disturb the machinery of the cell.

My own journey since my diagnosis has followed Temoshok’s advice. And I have been aided and abetted by people like City Pulse editor and publisher Berl Schwartz, who gave me this column!

So, soon after diagnosis I set my sights on learning as much as possible about how I got sick and how I might stay alive. Joy arranged an appointment with Jim Sparandeo, an alternative nutritionist in Philly who worked closely with two oncologists. He instructed me to drink green bancha tea, take Kyolic garlic capsules, imbibe Omega 3 oil and begin a daily regimen of carrot juicing. We did so for several years.

Joy and I decided to have a child and succeeded with the birth of our daughter Oonagh in 1997. It was the happiest day of our lives. And you know what? It just gets better!
With an eye on my limited mortality (hey, none of us gets out of here alive), I redoubled my efforts to become the social medicine scholar, writer and activist that was my motivation for coming to Michigan in the first place. Whenever I see important health-related data suppressed, as it often is in areas like environmental health, I feel that it is my ethical duty to expose it. According to Temoshok, it might even help me live longer!

The truth is in the whole, not in the partial specializations of biomedicine. I credit some biomedical professionals for diagnosing my melanoma and providing needed surgeries, but I do not consider them sufficient for my survival, or my personal transformations. Besides, I should point out that nearly a score of doctors missed diagnosing my skin cancer for years, something that is still sadly true for so many patients who do not receive the full-body scan as part of their primary care physicals.
In line with my life course I am now beginning a new phase in my journey as the executive director of LocalMotion, a grass-roots, solutions-driven, organization dedicated to raising awareness about the connections between environmental toxins and negative health consequences, including cancer. It’s based in Ann Arbor.

I am very excited about this new endeavor and shall do all in my efforts to help continue its success. Therefore I am taking a sabbatical from the column. But we’re putting it in great hands. Dave Dempsey, the policy adviser for the Michigan Environmental Council, will take the reins. As column readers know, he’s terrific. Salud!





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