Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Falwell, Faith, Fear and Funds

Here's an Aussie's site that you absolutely must visit sometime (BEEP! BEEP! IT'S ME.). I just love the sense of humour, the rich visual context for her blogs, the iconic symbolism of Arthur Dent, the Cheshire Cat, flying pigs ... even the extensive blog rolls. Well worth many visits, actually!

Today, I noticed a quote which I thought instructive:

"When Christianity went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it became an organization. When it went to Europe, it became a culture. When it came to America, it became a business."

Christianity in Greece is quite attractive, especially if you fancy Neoplatonism. In Rome, I'm not impressed. In Europe, I start to get afraid of bonfires. In America, I keep feeling for my wallet. The following video illustrates this quite well:

But it's not just your wallet that you need to protect from the televangelist hucksters. It's your liberty and freedom. The so-called Christian pledge of allegiance of the extreme right-wing is just another symbol of how the meaning of words are twisted in the service of a political goal with pseudo-Christian rhetoric - "life and liberty for all who believe".

Admittedly, this video is old, but given the recent death of Jerry Falwell, it's worth rehearsing what this "man of faith" stood for.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0542 - Cancer and Canadian Health Care

My wife and I have often wondered what would have happened to our family if Canada didn't have a universal health care system and if we both didn't have benefit packages to provide an economic buffer for a serious illness. As it turned out, from late November 2005 until just recently, the Canadian health care system paid for most of the following direct medical costs (mostly, in our case, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan or OHIP):

  • 2 colonoscopies and 2 sigmoidoscopies
  • 2 MRIs and 2 CT scans
  • several X-rays and 2 PICC lines
  • daily radiation treatment for almost 6 weeks (prior to surgery)
  • daily chemotherapy treatment for 6 weeks (prior to surgery)
  • bi-weekly chemotherapy for about 14 weeks (after surgery)
  • a low anterior resection surgery
  • twice weekly (at least) visits from nurses providing home care services
  • a total of about 30 days of hospitalization
  • various in-patient tests and procedures including implantation of an inferior vena cava filter, sonograms, medications, x-rays, and private intensive cardiac care for several days

In addition, my employer's benefit package provided semi-private room coverage, short-term and long-term disability coverage, and the flexibility to apply sick days and vacation days to the period of my hospitalization to recoup loss of salary. My employer also deserves praise for accepting travel to and from our regional cancer care centre while I continued work (admittedly with a significantly reduced productivity rate for most of 2006). We were also beneficiaries of a federal drug plan to recover the costs of oxaliplatin during my chemotherapy.

A nationally mandated health care program dispensed through provincial and regional institutions and a culture in Canada supporting universal health care made it possible for us to get through this period without suffering serious financial losses (although, I should hasten to add that there were financial implications despite what our country and employers offered in the way of protection).

If we had lived in the United States, things might have been very different. True, given that we are a fairly average, middle-class family of four, we both would likely have purchased private health insurance with an HMO. But as Michael Moore's most recent film, Sicko, reportedly demonstrates, that might not have been enough (see Time's review or Salon's movie review).

Donna and Larry Smith, both in their 50's just like us, had HMO plans, but when she had cancer and heart trouble, their health bills accumulated so quickly that they had to sell their home, move into their daughter's basement in Denver, and use all their life savings to pay for treatment and medication. The documentary doesn't deal with the 50 million Americans who don't even have health care, nor the 18,000 or so that will die each year in the United States because they have been denied health care (about 4 times the number of American soldiers already killed in the Iraq war). It deals with average Americans whose medical insurance plans don't protect them adequately just when a serious illness strikes. Far better to be a prisoner. Even detainees at Guantanamo get better health coverage than most American citizens, including free colonoscopies and nutrition counseling.

Until and unless you've been in a similar health care crunch, you may never fully appreciate how wonderful it is to be a Canadian citizen.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0541 - Be Here Now ... I don't think so

"It may be wiser to offend with the truth than to anaesthetise with lies."

As I continue to reflect on my experience of dealing with cancer and cancer treatment, I keep coming back to the future. Sure, there were delusional moments in the hospital when I truly believed that my molecules would be disassembled and later reassembled - in Star Trek transporter fashion - to a conference in Los Angeles. But that's not what I'm referring to.

What I mean is my experience of the future, the advice to live in the present, to take one moment after the other, and to relegate the future, and its obvious anxieties, to the past. After surviving radiation, surgery, post-surgical complications, and chemotherapy, as well as a real threat of recurrent cancer, I actually embraced a life philosophy of celebrating the moment, letting worries slip off my back, and taking it easy.

It was only gradually that I realized how much I sacrificed by that stance. Sure, people liked me better. Colleagues found me to be less of a threat and family members were relieved that I was less argumentative. But the price I paid was being less human. Yes, there were and are all kinds of "authority figures" who talk about meditation, relaxation, emotional therapy, and the new-age flavour of the week as ways of dealing with cancer and cancer survival. And while I understand and often respect the motives such purveyors of self help, I've come to also appreciate just how much cancer and self-help treatment threatens that which makes us unique in the landscape of evolutionary development.

Anxiety and planning are the hallmarks of what it means to be human. As Daniel Gilbert discusses in Stumbling on Happiness, it is the human brain's frontal lobe which sets us apart from other forms of life, precisely that part of the mammalian brain which keeps us worrying about and planning for the future. In fact, in normal, healthy individuals, approximately 12% of our waking life is devoted to thinking about the future. So when gurus and pundits tell us to Be Here Now and forget the future, we are doing something that is intrinsically a backwards step in our journey from homo habilis to homo sapiens.

I've responded recently to inquires about how it feels to be declared free of any evidence of disease that I now have the luxury of thinking about the future. But I guess what I really mean is that I have slightly less worry about my health when I contemplate the future. I have, in a way, more future to anticipate now. I can worry about other things, things like how to kick start my career again, about whether to rebuild my part-time business, about how my sons are doing with their own career planning and education, about vacations my wife and I might take together, about doing all those odd jobs to maintain our house and property, about whether the religious right is making progress in destroying democratic traditions and institutions ... in other words, the kinds of worries and anxieties everyone else entertains on a daily basis.

Cancer, and some forms of emotional treatment strategies, take this away from us. We try instead to reach a state of equilibrium and calm in order to deal with the sometimes overwhelming pain and anxiety, but in doing so we surrender the life lived not here, not now, but in the dreams of what might come to be. I don't know about you, but I'm thinking that I want to grab the horns of the future with both hands, wrestle with it, and, in the process, remain as human as possible.

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0541 - Get Screened Now! ... Please.

Melanoma Girl pointed me to the following public service announcement, something which got my day off a very good start:

The following isn't quite as funny, but still indicative of the light-hearted approach I'm seeing these days in recommending colon cancer screening:

The Colorectal Foundation of Australia has a spot that is far funnier:

You'll have to wait for this one, but I guarantee you'll be entertained with the voices of the Simpsons characters on a Conan O'Brien late night clip:

Breast cancer screening? What did you expect?

A touch of poignancy.

One of my favourite actresses, Bythe Danner, talking (seriously) about losing her husband to oral cancer:

Going too far with cancer awareness? How about using cancer as a diet gimmick?

Finally, if you have 25 minutes to spare, let me recommend something that isn't funny at all, but extremely important. In this video, a gastroenterologist from the Seattle area talks about and illustrates CRC (colorectal cancer) screening information.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Theocracy? Here?

One of my favourite bathroom readers is Uncle John's Colossal Collection of Quotable Quotes. The back cover has what I think is the most memorable of them all: "The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him." - Robert Benchley

I'm sure that were one perverted and idle enough to do a survey of my blog entries, they could prove that point ... many times.

But I recently came upon a quote which merits more serious review and reflection.

"Death solves all problems: no man, no problem."

OK, who said it?

Well, if you're like me, you would immediately open up a browser (Internet Explorer for my Microsoft friends, and Firefox for my anyone-but-Microsoft friends), go to Google (my Google friends) and type in the quote, finding out immediately that it comes from that pillar of democracy and tolerance, Joseph Stalin. Interestingly, if you chose to search using Microsoft's Live Search, the entry at the top of the list is a Washington Post article from 9-April-2005. It is this search result that is truly interesting. After all, we all know that Stalin isn't usually one's first choice for quotable quotes.

The article in the Washington Post notes that Edwin Vieira, a constitutional lawyer and author, used part of the quote - "No man, no problem." - in addressing a group called together at the time to discuss "Remedies to Judicial Tyranny." The context for the remark was the Christian reconstructionist opposition to the American Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority decision in the Lawrence v. Texas case striking down the state's anti-sodomy law. Not only did Vieira and others call for Kennedy's impeachment, Vieira prefaced his quote of Stalin as a recommendation for what to do with "communist" judges like Kennedy:

"Here again I draw on the wisdom of Stalin. We're talking about the greatest political figure of the twentieth century ... He had a slogan, and it worked very well for him whenever he ran into difficulty. 'No man, no problem."

Vieira waited for the applause and then repeated his slogan, following up by asserting that we have the wrong judges in positions of power in America.

If such viewpoints were simply the rants of isolated and fringe players, we might be tempted to move on. But the far right Christian reconstructionists who were at the conference on Capital Hill that weekend for Confronting the Judicial War on Faith are calling for a wholesale deconstruction of the democratic tradition. In its place, they want a theocracy, especially one enshrined in the judiciary. And their desire isn't about some pie-in-the-sky millennial reign after Jesus returns. No, it's something they believe should be enshrined in the American constitution ... now. And the primary target is the American judiciary, the same judiciary which, they believed, allowed Terry Schiavo to be murdered (see my entry from 21-Mar-2005).

And what about Canada, eh?

The situation here isn't nearly as hysterical as in the United States. But all we have to do to realize we are not immune to such fanatical theocratic musings is to recall Saskatchewan Conservative MP Maurice Vallacott's criticism of Chief Justice Beverly MacLaughlin in the spring of last year. Vallacott accused MacLaughlin of playing God, then offered a half-hearted apology. The accusations were simply untrue.

But, like so many other issues the radical right fixates upon, what really matters is what Stephen Colbert would call the truthiness of the matter, what one wants to believe is true, not what actually is true. So-called "activist judges" are being attacked in Canada too. There is far less talk here of enacting Christ's kingdom here north of the 49th parallel, but give it some time.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful - Beautiful Science

Evenings continue to be tough on me these days. Perhaps it's because I'm not preoccupied with solving some IT-related puzzle for a user and can slip more fully into the body's nagging sensations. Perhaps it's because my bowels are finally ready to get rid of wastes that have built up during a daytime of eating. Whatever reason or reasons, when I get home I can usually expect the "new normal" of life after rectal cancer treatment to involve pain and numerous trips to the washroom.

Sometimes, as I try to get some respite by resting on my recliner, I will try to vary the routine by switching resting positions to the bed and listen to CBC radio. Tonight, I had the good fortune of hearing an interview with the Pulitzer-prize winning author Natalie Angier talking about improving scientific literacy among the general populace. It is her view that far too often science is portrayed as boring, when it is anything but boring. In fact, in her recent book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, she invites those who have never studied science since their high-school physics, biology, or chemistry classes to "attend to the universe" and rediscover the beauty that surrounds us.

Coincidentally, another person interviewed spoke about a lifetime collecting soundscapes. We heard samples of everything from a growling jaguar in the Amazonian rainforest to the sound of shrimp in the ocean. His message to the audience was simple: "Be quiet and listen to the world around you." The two interviews reminded me of why life, despite aggravations like rectal cancer, is incredibly glorious.

On another beautiful spring day in Kitchener, Ontario, these simple messages were exactly what I needed to hear. True, my working life is about information technology and is punctuated continually by the sound of presses punching out plastic caps, interspersed with phone calls from users asking for help, modulated by human voices making their views known on a variety of topics in different meeting spaces. Nothing wrong there, but how wonderful to go outside at lunchtime, let the sun beat down on my skin for a few minutes, and enjoy the sound of sparrows chirping. Or to come home from work, open the patio doors and listen to the sounds of both nature and neighbours. I can then pick up a book or turn to research on the Internet and find photographs or stories about scientific discovery and the awe inspired by simply attending to the universe.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0531 - Medical Mistakes Redux

Back on September 1st, 2006, I wrote about my own experiences with medical mistakes; I did so in the context of an Alberta woman's death from a chemotherapy overdose. Recently, Tina, a friend of the deceased woman, Denise Melanson, wrote a comment for that blog entry, indicating that a report was forthcoming about reforms arising in Alberta from the overdose. CBC posted a news article about the overdose yesterday and you can read the entire report here.

Denise had 4 days' worth of fluorouracil delivered to her in 4 hours. She received the chemo on 31-July-2006 and died on 22-Aug-2006 at the University of Alberta Hospital. No antidote exists for an overdose of fluorouracil (as well as cisplatin).

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices did a root cause analysis and determined that there were several factors involved in the overdose. The overdose itself, the poorly designed chemotherapy protocol, and the inability to mitigate the lethal overdose all contributed to her death.

Two things of a personal nature have happened since those terrible events. I finished my FOLFOX chemotherapy treatments in September, and my aunt, who lives in Calgary, is undergoing treatment for melanoma. The events are unrelated except that they revolve around Alberta, chemotherapy, cancer, and medical mistakes.

There is no way I can truly understand what it feels like to receive an overdose of chemo like Denise Melanson. I can only say that my chemotherapy treatment was largely without incident. There were no overdoses, at least of fluorouracil and oxaliplatin, but I was quite sick, especially as the chemo drugs built up in my system over time. Even now, almost 8 months after my final chemotherapy treatment, I still suffer from neuropathy in the feet. I can only imagine what might have happened if I had received an overdose of either drug. My heart goes out to Denise's family and her friends, like Tina.

Both this report, as well as my aunt's continuing battle against melanoma in an Alberta hospital, bring it all back - the fear, the hope, the side effects, the "chemo brain", the total dependence on medical authorities - it all surges back as if it were yesterday.

But despite the need for constant vigilance, despite the need for someone to monitor and manage everything that is done to a cancer patient during treatment (my aunt is now discovering just how fragmented the "cancer teams" of specialists can be), progress is being made. Denise's family and friends will have some comfort in knowing that a medical mistake like the one she suffered is now much less likely in Alberta hospitals. My aunt may receive some comfort as well in the hope that her rare form of melanoma may well be elevated among practitioners doing daily diagnoses of medical problems.

Maybe no miracles, just continuous improvements.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

BeliefNet Test: a personality quiz

I've really got to start paying Bint Alshamsa for her links to fascinating quizzes! This morning, as I was doing my daily survey of my Google Reader RSS subscriptions, I read her entry about her own test results of the Belief-O-Matic - A personality quiz about your religious and spiritual beliefs. I decided to follow suit and came up with - no surprises here - the following top 5 matches (the links are to beliefnet


Secular Humanism (100%)

Unitarian Universalism (93%)

Nontheist (80%)

Liberal Quakers (72%)

Theravada Buddhism (69%)

If I had taken the test even one or two years ago, the results would have been different. I strongly suspect that nontheist would have been at the top position and Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants higher than its current 7th position (62%). But over the past six months or so, I've been reevaluating the language I use to describe my beliefs or disbeliefs. In doing so, I've decided to pare down, to cut away language which reflects preconceptions.

But this exercise isn't easy. There are always worries that intentionally using non-religious language means I just don't care. That's not the case. It would not be too big a stretch to say that most of my adolescent and adult life has been characterized by searching and reflecting on big issues, what in a mainline, liberal Christian perspective someone like Paul Tillich would have called Ultimate Concerns.

In fact, I still get a buzz when I read Tillich. All religion, according to Tillich is finite and can only point to the infinite, which means, of course, that all religion cannot be taken too seriously. All religious or spiritual knowledge is about the finite pointing to the infinite; all genuine religion is therefore symbolic. If any faith tradition doesn't understand this, then it is idolatrous (again, slipping into traditional language).

Am I a secular humanist? I guess it depends on which day of the week I take the test. It depends on whether I'm feeling sympathetic to the language of symbolism or interested merely in dealing with more mundane, finite realities. One thing I can say for sure is that most self-confessed secular humanists bore me to death. They simply won't relent, even for a few moments, to discuss the value of any religion or spirituality, even if it is self-consciously ironic or symbolic.

On the other hand, I have become convinced that finding a congenial group of nontheists who can escape from religious language on demand and who are willing to distance themselves from fundamentalism (conceived either in terms of belief or liturgical practice) seems a vain hope. I cannot embrace a religious liberalism that somehow thinks literalists are more spiritual than secular humanists. They're not!

Any religion that is worth consideration must respect all aspects of what it means to be human, including our skeptical and rational faculties. Most mainline and liberal Protestant denominations are caught in a cul-de-sac of sentimental piety and half-hearted rationality. Even worse, they get lumped together with fundamentalists because they use almost identical language.

So, what to do? Keep on doing what I'm doing, I suppose. Point to the moon, while reassuring those watching me that my finger is not the moon. Making the sound of one hand clapping, while wondering just how we hear sounds anyway. Contemplating ultimate concerns when time permits, the rest of the time taking care of the ordinary, everyday, wonderful things of life.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Brief History of Disbelief

I heard about this series, narrated by Jonathan Miller (to be aired on PBS), on one of the most popular science blogs Pharyngula, but was unable to find it actually on our television listings. But if you don't mind viewing the series in 10-minute segments in an embedded YouTube window on another Blogspot blog, then here it is.

The objective of the series is to describe the origins of the lack of belief and to uncover something of the complex story of modern atheism. As Miller states in the first episode, the history of disbelief can only be understood in the context of belief. He begins with one of the most tragic and ironic terrorist incidents in modern history - the attacks of 9/11 in which Muslim fundamentalists decrying the secular imperialism of the United States attacked the godless nation in a bloodbath of technology and fanaticism in the name of Allah.

The irony is that within just a few miles of the twin towers, one finds quite another America, not a secular oasis, but a land of Christians whose belief is every bit as fundamentalist, if not as rabidly violent, as that of those who flew the airplanes that day.

Miller is reluctant to call himself an atheist. I understand why. It's simple really. How can one give a name to something that rarely even occupies one's thoughts? It is only because of recent events, like 9/11 and other religiously motivated acts of terrorism, that Miller feels it necessary to explore his disbelief while so many around him continue to talk about their religious beliefs.

I look forward to viewing the series, especially Miller's take on the resurrection of disbelief in the 15th and 16th centuries as a result of religious divisions (the Reformation) rather than the scientific discoveries of that period. Should be interesting.

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0527 - Living with, and possibly dying from, cancer

One of the cancer blogs I read daily is called My Cancer by Leroy Sievers of NPR. Leroy is battling metastatic colon cancer. A couple days ago he wrote about the specter of death (Leroy will be interviewed by Ted Koppel on Living with Cancer on the Discovery Channel tomorrow night at 6:00 pm). One of his messages was,

“I think the biggest thing that separates us from the people who don't live in cancer world is not the pain, not the treatments, not the fear or sadness. It's that we have a pretty good idea of what's going to kill us, and a pretty good idea of when that might happen. Some of the mystery is taken away.”

A year ago today, I was released from hospital for the third time after my surgery on March 28th. I was weak, afraid, vulnerable, and wondering whether it would be hours, days, weeks, months, or possibly years before I was admitted into hospital again. There were times in the hospital bed when I felt as though death was staring me directly in the face, when I wondered if my wife and I would ever have time to plan retirement together, if I would ever see my sons married and starting their own families, if I would ever be able to think about ordinary things again. Death was my constant companion, it seemed.

Death didn't seem, as Leroy says, very mysterious to me at all. I knew its perfume. I knew what its shadow looked like. I knew a little of its icy touch.

If you had happened to visit me at that time, and if you had thought to comfort me by talking about life after death, the joys of heaven, and the safety of being in the arms of God ... well, it wouldn't have provided any comfort at all. It would have been, at best, a pleasing fantasy ... pleasing to you maybe.

Today, one year later, I still find absolutely no comfort in themes of life after death. But I've touched the elephant in the room from trunk to tail and think I have a pretty good grasp of the many perspectives of the various blind men describing that elephant.

If I were to visit you in a hospital bed as you too fought cancer and wondered about the specter, guaranteed I wouldn't talk about heaven and hell and safety in the bosom of the Lord. No, I'd take a far simpler and, I think, more honest approach. I'd listen and tell you something about my own experiences, if it was apparent that you really wanted to hear about them. I'd watch you carefully for signs of fatigue and for hints about what I could offer in the moment. Maybe a glass of water, maybe help flagging down a nurse for your meds to be delivered on time, instead of thirty minutes late.

If it made sense at the time, we might talk about hope, about treatment, about your family, about all the good things that make our lives worth living in the first place. I'd make the visit short, but I'd promise to see you again tomorrow.

I can't be there for her, but I wish I could do those things for my aunt right now as she rests in a hospital bed out west. Two days ago, her pathology report came back positive for cancer in the lymph node in her groin, the biopsy being taken during her surgery when part of her foot was amputated for an aggressive melanoma.

Yesterday, my wife and I celebrated our 34th wedding anniversary, recalling last year at this time, wondering if I will ever feel normal again (something which doesn't seem to be happening with the continuing neuropathy in my feet, rectal bleeding at the strangest times, and almost omnipresent discomfort in my bottom), but so thankful that we have had another year together. And the prospects for yet another year together in reasonably good health look good. That in itself would be a comfort to my aunt, seeing me recovering and thinking about the future. That would definitely comfort her. That's just the kind of woman she is.