My friend, I’ll call her Anna, is dying today. She was dying yesterday, too, and tomorrow she’ll be even closer to death than today. That’s true of all of us, I suppose, but she’s on the fast track: Her gut is so clogged up with cancer that there’s nothing left to do for her but pump her full of powerful pain meds and wait. She is thirty-something and has a gentle husband and a daughter not yet four.
A couple of weeks ago Anna’s gut seized up like an engine drained of oil. Normally, smooth-muscle contractions known as peristalsis propel food in waves through the digestive tract. In Anna’s ravaged body that process, finally, shut down. She’d already endured the excruciating pain of intestinal blockage; her life had more or less become a series of agonizing bodily failures. To “cure” her this time meant abdominal surgery, her fourth since her original cancer diagnosis. The surgeon had to divert the stopped-up bowel by installing a tube to the outside with a pouch that would sit against her abdomen to catch waste. When I hugged her, she held back: “I’m disgusting,” she said, and averted her red-rimmed eyes. “This is such a nightmare.”
My poor friend had already been through enough misery, including round after round of chemotherapy. Chemo seems so barbaric, doesn’t it? A toxic mixture dripped into the veins to beat the crap out of cells—but it doesn’t know sick cells from healthy ones and so pummels indiscriminately. You get horrible side effects and no promise of a true cure. Researchers are starting to use more targeted therapies formulated exactly for an individual patient, but such drugs haven’t been terribly effective on colorectal-cancer patients. Still, Anna tried a combination of therapies for a short time, just in case. But no matter which treatment, one side effect was to exhaust her such that she could barely lift her daughter into her arms. Continue reading