Monday, October 13, 2008

cancer part two

I had been planning to write a little piece about what causes cancer, for the next segment in my cancer series. But a few days ago, I was going through my back-up email account and opened up an overlooked message from an old college friend, and found out that one of my closest friends from college has been diagnosed with Stage IV (i.e. metastatic) colon cancer. By the time I read the message, he'd already made it through surgery and had started chemotherapy.

So, let me tell you a little about this friend instead. I think Jed is one of the most ferociously intelligent people I've ever met, and that includes most if not all of the doctors I've come across. I remember a class we both took during junior year on European literature, which involved reading a lot of the great "canon" works (The Odyssey, The Iliad, sections from the Bible, Greek plays, The Divine Comedy, etc.) and writing weekly 3-page papers. Occasionally I'd share my ideas for a paper with Jed; typically, he'd grimace and try to straighten me out. I would argue with him, then submit the paper with all my original ideas. Inevitably, I'd get a B or B- with comments from the professor that mostly echoed what Jed had told me. That went on for the whole semester. (What can I say? I was stubborn.)

And yet, Jed was also one of the most down-to-earth people on campus. He was intensely proud of hailing from Vermont, he almost invariably wore jeans and a baseball cap, and he drove around in an old Chevette with vanity plates ("Jed 2"). It was impossible to dislike him, or to not be impressed by his intelligence. He lived down the hall from me during freshman year, straight across from my friends Chud and Austin. One of my best memories of college: Jed and his roommate Giff (also a good friend), and Chud and Austin, screaming "Fuck you!" back and forth across the hall at each other for 10 minutes straight, laughing the whole time. (Trust me - he really is an incredibly bright guy ...)

Jed and Giff and I also lived in the same dorm during senior year, and I saw Jed several times during the first few years after graduation, including once when he came over to my hometown and stayed with my family. My parents kept bringing him up and asking about him for months afterward. He just made an impression on people.

And he probably still is. I haven't talked to Jed in at least 10 years, probably more like 15. He graduated with top honors, went to grad school (in Madison!), became a professor of literature, got married, has two girls. Unbeknownst to me, he'd also gotten a faculty position at a top liberal arts school in the Midwest, and written several books on literary criticism.

I just checked on Google maps: about a 7-hour drive from Mad City. Maybe in the spring? I'll let him get through his chemotherapy first.

And as for his illness: while we generally consider solid tumors incurable once they've metastasized, that's not exactly true. Some people with what's called oligometastatic disease, or limited mets, can potentially be cured with surgical resection of their primary tumor and metastases. It's not very common, and at present is pretty much limited to colon cancer with liver mets. Which I believe is Jed's situation.

And as for a 40-ish guy getting diagnosed with colon cancer: Jed is actually the third person I know from school who's been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. The others were a high-school classmate and the wife of one of my friends from med school (who was diagnosed in her early 30's). They were both treated and are doing fine now. I just have to believe, and I do, that the same will hold true for Jed.

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