Anna Donald: Science, a wonderful, slow tortoise

Anna Donald A few days ago, my scans came back. My liver looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. Blobs, blotches, lines everywhere. Three weeks ago, it had looked quite neat. No longer. It’s been attacked by a mob of graffiti artists. My lungs were a bit better, but heading the same way. Chemo time! Oh yay.

My oncologist is trying oral chemotherapy, partly because I have no veins left in my ‘good’ arm. I didn’t realise you could eat chemotherapy in tablets. If it works, I won’t need an under-the-skin access ‘port’ dug into my right shoulder. So far, I’m surprised by the absence of adverse effects, other than being a bit tired. So what’s new. I hope it’s working. Somehow the cricket-bat feeling from infused chemotherapy made me think that if it’s knocking me this hard, it must be knocking the cancer too.

I’m disappointed and scared that the liver looks so ghastly. I probably shouldn’t be. I have a ‘flare’ cancer – it’s fast and frail. Like a weed that races over the ground but isn’t too hard to cut back. My London doctors had said that if I was lucky I wouldn’t need chemo until April. It’s May. Going on June. So I’ve done OK. I just hope that I can keep doing OK. I hope this treatment throws me back into remission. When I can have another go at effecting a miracle (or rather, putting myself in the way of one).

I feel a bit like a TB patient in the 1920s, before people discovered antibiotics. The answer was out there; we just hadn’t brought it down into our consciousness and turned it into something you could do something with. I’m sure we will figure out how to decipher people’s errant genetic codes and combat their individual cancers, rather than relying on the current blunderbuss, one-size-fits-all mustard gas approach (the basis for chemotherapy). It just might not be for a few more decades. Can I hold out that long? Can I discover an alternative strategy in the meantime?

I’ve seen faith healing work with my own eyes in people who should not have lived. I don’t deny the sacred is at work, in the (very real) sense that all things are sacred if you choose or allow yourself to be plugged into it. At another level, the scientist in me posits that something’s going on that we just don’t understand yet. Whatever you want to call that something. And that’s hardly surprising, as there’s so much we don’t understand.

Science is a wonderful, slow tortoise that ambles along with painstaking steps: one step forward, half a foot back, one forward, half a foot back, maybe one and half foot forwards if you’re lucky. It rarely leaps: our scientific imagination can only move so far and so fast from what we already know. You can’t experiment on something you can’t conceptualise. 

And as well as being incremental, scientific thinking is arbitrary and evolutionary, in the sense that it is based, for the most part, on what happened to go before. And like the weird and wonderful creatures that result from evolutionary biology, scientific inquiry finds itself in all kinds of corners – and not in other ones, which might yield knowledge and solutions that we just aren’t capable of ‘seeing’ yet. I’m not denying the existence of Thomas Kuhn’s ‘scientific revolutions’ – the occasional, major breakthrough that changes everyone’s thinking – but even these are usually based on working through previous ways of thinking and realising they don’t fit. They are rarely brand new hypotheses that depart from all previous thinking.

Because of all this, I’m optimistic there’s a way to get better – we just don’t know it yet. And I’m pessimistic about science getting to it anytime soon. So I’m just praying that I might stumble across it, as some colleagues and friends have done, even if I don’t know what I’m doing because I don’t have the concepts at this point in scientific history to wrap around it. I know the chances are slim. That’s when I plug myself into the sacred. Then either I find a vortex to slip through that enables healing (which we don’t currently understand, but which I have seen work in others) or find death as gracefully as I can. The annoying thing is that in 100 years’ time – maybe 30 – breast cancer will be a thing of the past. I just don’t know if I can wait that long.

Read Anna’s previous blogs:

Confessions of a chemo veteran

Mind and body

Making meaning in the now, for the now


Back from a buddhist retreat

Life in the shadow

  • Tom

    Love you. Keep writing. It’s great.

  • I wish we could help effect that miracle or make something manifestly useful out of everyone’s admiration for you Anna. As Tom says, don’t stop writing…food for every human. I’m certainly mulling over the gracious interpretation of your experiences. And your insight. And your eloquence. We miss you. Lots of love.

  • Sophia King

    I think your writing is great and I hope that it is proving to be therapeutic for you. I found it to be for me when I was first daignosed with breast cancer. I read your blog and I read my own fears and understand so totally where you are coming from. I am fortunate enough to be ‘all clear’ 4 years on, but my dad died of metastatic prostate cancer last year after 10 years and I lost 2 aunts and a grandmother to breast cancer.
    I am doing the Edinburgh Moonwalk with a neighbour ( also diagnosed breast cancer 2 years after me while pregnant) on 14th June for breast cancer for me, my family and you. Keep positive.
    I believe that life is a journey, not a destination and that the meaning of life is in living it while you are here.
    I will look forward to reading your blog for a while to come still.

  • Dr.Viveck Atheya

    Let’s not call it just “sacred”-it is-but let us say it is “the omnipotent”.Get out of that ‘Scientist’hang up and BE what you are-a patient.Let the magic work.

  • Foteini

    Dear Anna
    It is a great fight you are giving. Being a doctor does not allow to believe in the power of faith and hope. I have being wondering for years whether I would be capable of facing cancer. My uncle died at the age of 56 because of lung cancer of a very aggressive type. He was expected to live less than 6 months but he managed to live for 2 years. It was his approach to the disease I believe. He told me 6 months after the first diagnosis “I am not giving up I shall fight, I know I can do it” and in a way he did it.
    Giving up the scientist inside us is difficult but as you say there are a lot more there that we do not know and that science will take long to understand, so maybe it is worth doing so.
    Thank you for sharing your experience with the world.
    GP, Greece

  • pablo

    Seems that our approach to cancer treatment is like killing a fly in a city, so we do a carpet bombing of the city.
    Some “new” molecular strategies are less likely to destroy the city (the patient), like a madman with a rifle trying to hit the fly.

    Who knows, 15-20 years ago they said that to decode the genetic code will take us until the year 2020.
    We achieve it around the year 2000.
    I hope something like that happens with cancer.

  • Andrew Carmichael

    Please try to interest your consultants in the work of John I Toohey who has shown a method of killing only the cancer cells. (Cancer Letters 2008). It’s simple cheap and should be in use now. A person with your grit is needed to point out the advantages. Please do it if your health will let you.

  • Olga

    Feel so close to you although we’ve never met… surprising feeling!!
    I’m 35, physician, been working in “evidence-based medicine”. Like you, I used to make endless theories about the mind-body relationship and, “when I got caught up in EBM, I sadly put these questions aside….”.
    Just like you again, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a couple of months ago…. Wasn’t sure whether I should prepare myself to face treatments or prepare some kind of speech for my funeral!! Shared most of your views concerning chemotherapy…

    And then I read a book: Anticancer: A new way of life by David Servan-Schreiber. You should definitely read it if you haven’t done it already. It isn’t EBM…. but almost. Based on hundreds of references published in “prestigious journals”. Gives you lots of ideas on what you can do, yourself, on your own, to help this “miracle” your are waiting for arrive… The kind of ideas that doctors usually don’t have!

    I sincerely wish you the very best for today…. and for the future!

  • Ghislaine Young

    Anna you are truly amazing and inspiring!
    You are undergoing this emotionally and physically draining experience and yet you continue to write so lucidly and beautifully, teasing out the main stuff of life, and in so doing helping the rest of us to gain profound insights that might otherwsise elude us. I have always been fascinated by the meeting of science with the sacred and you make the two appear not as polarities but as complemetary, maybe two sides of the same coin? It strikes me that so mcuh in life that is a fundamental truth is in fact a paradox- such as life and death, the material world and the spiritual. Theillard de Chardin said that we are spiritual beings inhabiting a physical body, and I for one, am certain that our essence (the soul?) is liberated and lives on after our death. As you say, science evolves by great leaps in understanding, leading to whole pradigm shifts, illuminated by scared moments of intuition. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, feelings and experiences with us. Our lives are enriched because of you. Bless you!