Apr 292008

This news story is all over the internet today. This is the Globe and Mail’s version of the story. I gotta say, I am relieved that cancer researchers have finally decided to work *together* and share their research results so maybe we could make some headway with this nasty business.

Here’s how the Globe said it:

Ten countries co-ordinate cancer fight


Globe and Mail Update

April 29, 2008 at 12:14 PM EDT

Research groups from 10 countries are announcing today an unprecedented global effort to combat cancer, one of the world’s leading killers.

The collaborative project, dubbed the International Cancer Genome Consortium, will hunt the genetic mutations that drive 50 different types of cancer – from breast to bone. The consortium, in which Canada will play a lead role, plans to share results rapidly, widely and freely so scientists can quickly develop new diagnostic tests and treatments to counter them.

Each member country plans to spend roughly $20-million (U.S.) tackling at least one subtype of the disease, collecting specimen samples from 500 patients, and studying the genetic glitches they find in their cancerous cells. With 50 cancers to be studied, not all of them have been assigned a country yet.

But China, for example, intends to study liver cancer, since the country has particularly high rates of that disease. Japan will take on gastric cancer. India has an interest in oral cancers, France in sarcomas – cancers of the bone and connective tissue. Several countries will focus on breast cancers, including Britain and the United States, where research groups are also interested in brain and colon cancers.
Internet Links

* International Cancer Genome Consortium Popup
* ICGC Goals, structure, policies and guidelines (pdf) Popup

The Globe and Mail

Canada, which is to store, crunch and share all the data collected, will take on the pancreas.

”We picked a hard one,” said Dr. Tom Hudson, scientific director of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in Toronto, which will be the project’s home base as the ICGC Secretariat. ”There’s been research (into pancreatic cancer) but not much success. There’s just no survivor community.”

Dr. Hudson, who has helped to spearhead the consortium, noted pancreatic cancer is the 12th most common form of the disease, but one of the deadliest. More than 98 per cent of patients die within six months after diagnosis.

”In 2008, there will be 3,800 new cases and 3,700 deaths in Canada,” Dr. Hudson said. ”It’s almost always found too late.”

The consortium has come together in a whirlwind of meetings, conference calls and funding commitments during the past six months, driven by swift advances in computing technology that allow researchers to rapidly and cheaply read DNA. It is expected to amass 25,000 times more data than the international Human Genome Project, which produced the first draft sequence of human DNA in 2001.

DNA, the three-billion-chemical base-pair code that contains the operating instructions for human life, can be found in the nucleus of nearly every cell in the body. In cancer cells, however, that genetic code can be riddled with hundreds of mistakes, spawning cells that can multiply madly into deadly tumours.

”We know when you look at cancer cells, there can be thousands of mutations in that tumour cell…that were not inherited,” Dr. Hudson said. Specifically, he added, scientists are chasing the ”driver mutations” that allow a cancer to grow and spread and these are often different in different types of cancers.

Certain mutations have already proved worthwhile targets for treatment. Dr. Hudson pointed to the successful drug Gleevec as a prime example that has triggered remission in many patients. First approved to treat chronic myeloid leukemia, Gleevec works by blocking the abnormal version of a protein that a certain gene produces in the leukemia patients.

The treatment, which has since also been approved to treat a form of gastric cancer, represents a new class of drugs that selectively kill cancer cells without harming healthy ones. The lauded breast cancer drug Herceptin is another example of a therapy that selectively targets a specific molecule over-expressed in malignant cells.

There are few other examples, however, of such effective therapies, Dr. Hudson said, largely because it has been slow and expensive to find targets. He estimates that the consortium will run a 10-year effort, but ”we don’t have to wait 10 years (for a result), we will release it as we find it.”

The results will be made available to researchers worldwide and all those involved in the consortium have agreed ”not to file any patent applications or make other intellectual property claims on primary data from ICGC projects.”

The Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, with a five-year, provincially funded budget of $347-million, plans to spend $30-million on the project. At a press conference Tuesday morning, however, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the province will also contribute an additional $10-million to fund the OICR’s role as Secretariat.

Mr. McGuinty noted that Ontario, as a sub-national government, beat out the United States and Britain to lead the ICGC, and is essentially punching above its weight.

”Cancer is devastating to families and that’s why we’re doing all we can to help save lives,” Mr. McGuinty said. ”This investment puts Ontario at the forefront of international research that will save lives around the world.”

The money has so far allowed the institute to purchase 10 ultra-fast DNA-sequencing machines and lure top talent from the United States to take on the task. Among those recruited for ICGC job to Toronto, Dr. Hudson said, are Lincoln Stein, a pathologist turned bio-informatics ”guru” from Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., and John McPherson, a Canadian scientist returning home from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston after 20 years in the United States.

Dr. Hudson said it is hoped the federally funded Genome Canada will contribute more money for the project, which would allow Canadian researchers to study other cancers, namely those of the brain and ovaries.

”We don’t want the pancreas to be the only one we do,” he said. Dr. Hudson is no stranger to science on a massive scale, having played an early role in the human genome project, and the international Hap Map, which was the first effort to chart genetic differences between four of the world’s major ethnic populations.

Duplicating efforts by studying the same cancer types in different countries is crucial, Dr. Hudson said, because ”tumours of the colon look different in Singapore than they do in Toronto.”

Researchers suspect environmental, dietary and genetic differences can impact the way cancers develop in different regions of the world.

More countries are expected to join the consortium in the coming months. The list so far includes: Australia, Canada, China, Europe, France, India, Japan, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States.

 Posted by at 7:53 pm
Apr 222008

April is cancer month in the life of Spike so today I spent a lot of time exposing myself to necessary doses of radiation and talking to folks in lab coats and walking back and forth, from the clinic to my truck, from my truck to the clinic, lather, rinse, repeat.
I’ve mentioned before how I feel like I am a part of something when I am at the cancer agency.
And how there ain’t really anywhere else where I do feel a part of something anymore.
Strange, but true.
The one beautiful thing about the cancer agency is you never get tossed out because you have fallen from grace.
And much as it sort of sucks to feel like you belong somewhere like the cancer agency, at least it’s an important place to belong.

But in cancerland there is a fork in the road and, so far, I have stayed on the healthy side of that old fork.
And when I see folks at the cancer agency who are clearly in the middle of their treatment, I feel for them. I feel for them like I feel for no other carbon based life forms. They got sent down the other fork in the road.
So today I walked back and forth, back and forth, and I saw so many people who were clearly in the middle of treatment. People in bad wigs, people dragging their O2 around behind their wheelchairs. And that doesn’t even address the folks there who are not sporting the visible signs of distress from their treatment.
I spent about two hours, clomping back and forth, between my doctor’s office and the parkade and back again.
And as much as my life has sucked big time over the last four years, I realized I was one of the lucky ones.
For sure I would have liked to have sidestepped some of the heartache of the last couple of years. But I am not in a wheel chair, with an oxygen can and a bad prognosis.
And on that level, I am extremely lucky.

 Posted by at 8:46 pm
Apr 112008

The whole thing went like this….

I went out with some friends from work. They went outside to smoke a cigarette. I stayed behind, having given up that vice a couple of years ago. I decided to read the local free rag while they smoked.
Savage Love is a column in that paper.
Savage Love is the column I read while my friends smoked.
Savage Love is the column that made me all weepy and misty-eyed in a far from strategic setting.
The story is here:

For those of you too weary to click the link, and also somewhat curious about copyright law and whether I might get tonked, here is the text.

At a Loss
April 3, 2008
By Dan Savage

I thought I could bang out a column today—a regular column, a column about my readers’ problems and their freaky fetishes and all those asshole politicians out there. You know, the usual.

The day my son was born, I managed to slip out of the maternity ward and write a column; I wrote one the day I was indicted by the state of Iowa for licking Gary Bauer’s doorknobs. (I was actually indicted for voter fraud—on a trumped-up charge, your honor—but Bauer’s knob needs all the attention it can get.) I’ve written columns on days that I was dumped and on the morning of 9/11. So I figured that I could bang out a column today.

I opened my laptop and started reading your letters. I love reading your letters—I do. But I couldn’t get into it. I just don’t have a column in me this week. I’m disappointed in myself. I write this column at Ann Landers’s desk, for crying out loud, and the old lady banged out a heartbreaking, truncated column when her marriage collapsed. If Landers could bang one out under that kind of emotional strain, then I could damn well bang one out, too. Just do it, right? Just fucking do it. But I just fucking can’t.

My mother died on Monday.

Perhaps a sex-advice column isn’t an appropriate place to eulogize an articulate, elegant woman, a practicing Catholic named for the patron saint of hopeless causes and, perhaps consequently, a Cubs fan. I mean, really. Eulogizing my mother back here with the escort ads? So let’s not think of this as a eulogy. Let’s think of it as a thank-you note, the kind of nicety that my mother appreciated.

Forgive the cliché: My mom gave me so much. She gave me life, of course, and some other stuff besides: her sense of humor, her bionic bullshit detectors, her colossal sweet tooth. She also gave me—she gave all four of her children (Bill, Ed, Dan, Laura)—her unconditional love. Long after I came out, she told me she always suspected that I might be gay; I was the quiet one, the boy who liked Broadway musicals and baking cakes and shared her passion for Strauss waltzes. When I asked my parents to take me to the national tour of A Chorus Line for my 13th birthday, that should have settled the matter. Your third son? Total fag, lady. But my parents were Catholic and religious and it somehow still came as a shock when I told them. My mother came around fast and she came out swinging—rainbow stickers on her car, a PFLAG membership card in her wallet, and an ultimatum delivered to the whole family: Anyone who had a problem with me had a problem with her.

But the real reason I feel compelled to thank her in this space, back here with the escort ads, is because I wouldn’t have this space if it weren’t for her.

My mother, as my brother Bill likes to say, made friends like Rockefeller made money and George W. Bush makes mistakes—and she was that friend you confided in and went to for advice. I was a mama’s boy—hello—and I spent a great deal of time in my mother’s kitchen listening to her tell her friends exactly what they needed to do. Sometimes gently, sometimes brusquely, always with a dose of humor. My mom liked to say that her son got paid to do something that she did for free—and isn’t that the way the world works? Women cook, men are chefs; women are housewives, men are butlers; she gave advice, I got paid to give advice. (And for a few years, she did too; my mother and I wrote a joint column for a couple of websites in the 1990s.)

So I want to thank my mom. I wouldn’t be writing this column today if it weren’t for her gifts and her ability to find the humor in even the most serious of subjects.

Even death, even her own.

After a long struggle, we had to go into my mother’s hospital room and tell her that nothing more could be done. She didn’t go into the hospital expecting to die and she was not ready to go. But she took the news with her characteristic grace. She said her farewells, asked us never to forget her (as if), and paused for a moment. Then Mom lifted an eyebrow, shrugged, and said…


My mother wasn’t crude; I didn’t get my foul mouth from her. She used profanity sparingly and then only in italics and quotation marks. When she said “shit” on her deathbed, we understood the joke. What she meant was this: “Now, the kind of person who casually uses profanity might be inclined to say ‘shit’ at a moment like this. But I’m not the kind of person who casually uses profanity—and certainly not at a moment like this. But if I were the kind of person who casually used profanity, ‘shit’ might be the word I would use right now. If I were that kind of person. Which I’m not.”

Everyone gathered around her bed—my mother’s husband (my son has two fathers and so do I), my sister, my aunt—knew what Mom wanted: She wanted us to laugh. This woman, so full of life, who wanted so badly to live, having just been told she would not, she was trying to lift our spirits. (“Shit,” for the record, wasn’t her last word. Those were just for the family.)

Anyway, my mom is dead, and I am not in the mood, as she used to say. (“You are so,” one of us kids would usually respond. “You’re in a bad mood.”) So I’m going to take a week or two off, from the column and the podcast, hang out with the boyfriend and the kid, and burst into tears in coffee shops and grocery stores. I’ll run some greatest hits in this space while I’m away—I’ll find a column or two featuring Mom—and then I’ll be back, just as filthy minded as ever. In lieu of flowers, please send pictures of your boyfriends’ rear ends. (Lesbians may send flowers.) If you’re the donation-making type and you’re so inclined, my mother would be pleased to see some of your money flow to PFLAG (www.pflag.org) or the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation (www.pulmonaryfibrosis.org).

Oh, one last thing: I was supposed to take my mother to see the national tour of The Drowsy Chaperone in Chicago this Friday, April 11. It was her birthday present. I got us great seats: seventh row, on the aisle. But I won’t be able to use our tickets now. Not because it would be too depressing to go without my mother—not just because—but because, as rotten, stinking fate would have it, I’m going to be at my mother’s wake on Friday night.

But I’m practical, like Mom, and I’d hate to see perfectly good tickets to a national tour of a hit Broadway musical go to waste. And it occurs to me that there has to be a teenage boy out there—in Chicago or close enough—who likes musicals and has a mother who loves him for the little musical-theater queen that he is. If you know that boy or you are that boy or you were that boy a decade ago or if you’re that boy’s mother or grandmother, send me an e-mail and I’ll arrange to get these tickets to you.

Like I said, they’re great seats. I would go if I could. But I can’t.



If Dan Savage wants to sue me for copyright violation, I guess he and I can duke it out at the orphanage.

 Posted by at 8:21 pm
Apr 032008

April seems to be cancer month for me. I saw my gyno-oncologist yesterday and in a couple of weeks I will see the folks to care about my mutant-ness and keep an eye on where that old BRCA 1 mutation is going. While it may have happened before, on some level I feel overwhelmed by the huge cancer focus that is April of this year.
But it’s okay.
I mean, weird, but okay.
It’s a funny thing, but it seems like the death of my parents and a few other unhappy events have actually flipped me back to the beginning; back to trying to make sense of thinking I was all young and alive and…. ooops, you have cancer.

Like, life has been a shit sandwich for the last few years but to make sense of it, I have to begin at the beginning.

I was trying to explain to someone earlier today that going to the cancer agency for me is both weird and good. And maybe in ways you wouldn’t imagine.
But as strange as it might be to say, I think being in the cancer agency makes me a better person. When I am there, I feel pretty lucky. You walk in those doors and you can’t help but see people who are having a much harder time of things that I had or than I have.
There is nothing that stops me in my tracks like being in the cancer agency and seeing someone who is struggling.
And I confess, every single cell in my body starts to cheer for them, to urge them on. Cuz to me, we are very much on the same side.
Which leads to my second point.
When I finished chemo, probably the most important thing to me, aside from a list of things that were actually unattainable, was to grow my hair back.
As I have mentioned before, I could never have anticipated what a huge loss it was to lose my hair.
And thanks again to the friends who shaved their heads when I shaved mine. It meant the world.

So, when I passed a woman in a toque, it took me a second to connect the dots and then I felt this swell of emotion. And then I realized that she has no idea the depth of feeling she stirs in me.
Maybe it’s all too sappy to explain.
But as completely emotionally bankrupt as I am, I would do anything I could to help a cancer patient make it through their storm.

And, that said, the man in the lab coat showed up sans lab coat. Instead he was sporting a suit he bought when he was on sabbatical. We made jokes about his suit.
I like him a lot.
Which is good because he “tests” me in ways I am not prepared to discuss right here. But for me, right now, with this set of circumstances, he is the best doctor I could imagine having.
And for the folks keeping score at home, he says everything is fine and we will check back in a few months. And that’s a huge relief.
And in a couple of weeks, I will get my upper body tune-up, so fingers crossed for that.

But today, or really yesterday, I got reminded of how much worse it could all have been, past or present tense.
And I have been whining a lot lately, mostly because I think I have a lot to whine about. And I do.
But I remember how much worse it could be, and I feel for the folks who have to be there and who are there. And if I could do something to make any of it better, I would. Because at the end of the day, as much as any other group, those cancer peeps are my people.

 Posted by at 11:02 pm