Cancer and Trans and Drought, Oh My!

My favorite place for thinking.

How many years have I been making my way up and back, up and back in the lanes of this pool? I’m not exactly sure. This particular pool is actually the third version of itself at the original site. The first one was built in 1927 and was still in use when I showed up for my inaugural swim in the late 1960s.

The original pool

I didn’t become a regular until the mid-1970’s. Luckily for me, through its subsequent iterations, I worked close by, so a noon swim made for a great lunch hour. A new structure was built in 1980. When I was pregnant with my kids, I was grateful for the cool escape it provided, not only at lunch, but after work and on weekends. I lived without air conditioning back then, in a steamy-hot summer climate. After my kids and grandchildren showed up, we all took advantage of this beautiful facility which, despite being in an urban location, has always felt “away” from town and its associated hustle atmosphere.

With the grandkids at the pool – 2016.

I do a lot of my best thinking when I’m in the water. Maybe the repetitive motion of the breaststroke creates a good backdrop for mental processing. The endorphin release during exercise probably helps too. In any case, as I move along on the days when no one else shares my lane, I quietly ponder the issues which are foremost in my mind. Recently, I’ve been back on the cancer track. I suppose it’s fair to say that I haven’t been wholly off the track, not since both my parents were initially diagnosed with cancer back in 1989. I think it’s likely that for most people, once that initial confrontation with the “C” word happens, the world tilts a bit. What was never thought about floats through the mind on a regular basis. In my case, back then, my mom survived but my dad died within a few months. I was in my 30’s, a young mother, forever changed. One repeated experience that made an indelible imprint on me was constantly feeling that people around me were often so uncomfortable with confronting cancer, that I, in the midst of my struggles, was someone to be avoided. I frequently felt distant and much more isolated than I’d expected. I made up my mind back then that in the future, I would always go toward people in similar situations, making myself available during those most challenging times. Over the years, I’ve had ample opportunities to step into the lives of people coping with cancer, both patients and their families. Initially, I was a person who could simply be present, who could listen to the hard parts of grappling with both the disease and with loss. After Michael’s rare cancer was diagnosed and my role as an advocate and researcher became known, I turned into somewhat of a consultant. I’m an amateur, but I accrued wealth of knowledge in our quest to leave no stone unturned, during Michael’s effort to survive as long as possible, with a decent quality of life. Years after his death, I’m still engaged in this role, offering what I can to people in need.

An empty lane, the best place to think.

I still keep track of the latest treatments for cancer, particularly the targeted therapies which are more specific than chemotherapy. I’ve learned about the “ibs” and the “mabs,” the suffixes you see on the names of cancer drugs advertised on late-night television, in those commercials that are simultaneously hopeful and scary for people looking for longer life. Those suffixes refer to the different drug families, mostly monoclonal antibodies or small molecule inhibitors which interfere with the disease on a cellular level rather than clobbering all cells like traditional chemotherapy. One of those drugs, pembrolizumab or Keytruda, prolonged Michael’s life, pulling him back from the brink of death. He was a lucky responder. But traditional chemo came first. For most people chemo is still the first line of treatment. I recently read this frightening article, published in the Washington Post.

The root of the drug shortage crisis, most experts agree, is related to low profit margins on generic drugs, an overreliance on foreign manufacturing, increasing quality risks and brittle supply chains. “These drugs that are in short supply are not the blockbusters that pharmaceutical companies make big bucks from. They’re older, generic injectable drugs that companies don’t get a huge profit on.” Washington Post.

I find it tragic to think that in an era when progress is being made with new treatments, that corporate greed will deny traditional chemo drugs to people. Some might be cured or have their lives extended until they can move into the next level of alternative therapies. That’s how Michael lived years longer than anyone thought he could. Right now I’m sharing what I know about these issues with two people who have loved ones who are sick. There’s so much frustration with our medical system and the pharmaceutical companies. I think about all of this as I swim along.

On the way to the pool, back in the day.

The other day, I was sent off into another train of thought after a conversation with a fellow swimmer with whom I’ve chatted occasionally, over the course of the past few years. After seeing the same faces over time, swimming regulars tend to find out each other’s names, exchanging greetings and bits of information as a matter of course. On this particular day, the person next to me had mentioned that a recent surgery had made the pool off-limits for the past few weeks. We were discussing swimming strokes; protecting the back from injury was this person’s current focus. I asked if the just completed operation had been on the spine. The response I got was, “no, I’m trans, and I just had top surgery and so it’s important that I keep my back straight.” I admit that I was surprised at the public admission of such a personal experience, especially at a time when there is clear hostility toward people who are living in a way that apparently threatens others. We both continued our swimming but before I left the pool, I mentioned that I was glad I was considered safe enough to hear this person’s news. I don’t know what pronouns are being used by this individual, whose sexuality was not something I’d ever given a moment’s thought. I’ve thought about this a lot. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone is interested or concerned with other people’s lifestyles or choices, absent any deliberately hurtful actions toward others. Who cares about these private matters which have nothing to do with them? For me, there are lots of other looming threats which are considerably more impactful than people’s personal, private lives. I remain mystified by those who are adamantly opposed to freedom of choice and what simply “is”.

The cracked earth all around my community.

On the subject of truly threatening issues, I’ve been worrying my way down my pool lane with climate change weighing on my mind. Where I live, we’ve had our second consecutive year of spring drought. Except for the garden parts of my lot which I’m watering daily, the ground around me is hard, dry and cracked.

The tall upright yews at the back of my yard, habitat for scores of birds. They were shedding so many needles that I’ve been watering them daily for the first time in over 30 years.
Needles which have fallen from the yews.

I grow vegetables and herbs in my garden, but even more important to me, is the habitat I’ve been creating to beckon birds and insects into my yard, with a special focus on the threatened pollinators. Right now, I’m lucky to live in a place where so far, there’s been no need for water rationing. And I can still afford to pay my increasing bill. But I fret about what lies ahead if the powers that be continue to pretend that climate change isn’t the emergency that is right here, right now. We need aggressive action to slow down this process which is barreling forward.

Right now, I’m coaxing milkweed plants and butterfly bushes to keep growing, to pop open their tasty blooms for all the bees and butterflies which depend on them. Currently, the bees are wading through the drops on the ground from my watering, as well as dangling themselves in the birdbaths alongside their feathered friends. Even though rain would rob me of my pool time, I wish for it every day. Maybe it can fall before or after I finish my laps.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have fun when I swim, and always feel better when I’m finished. But I’m not one of those people who can ignore all this big stuff to focus entirely on myself, not even for an hour. Maybe in my next life…

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