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