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The war on cancer comes home

A technical writer shares how it feels to have cancer strike close to home.

My dad still looks pretty healthy. His thick black hair is increasingly peppered with silver strands and his wide, broad face only gently creased with wrinkles. He walks with a limp, the hobble of his right leg compensating for its less-than-ideal rotation in his hip socket, but that’s the only sign he might not be in perfect health. His mind is still sharp, he plays guitar daily and reads voraciously — recommending books for me to check out. I have promised him that I will read “Infinite Jest,” and while at first I was worried I might not finish it in time to discuss it with him, now I feel less urgency, and the book sits gathering dust on my bookshelf. I refuse to use David Foster Wallace as my timekeeper for the end of my dad’s life, because if the doctors haven’t set a countdown clock, why should the rest of us?


When I first started working as a technical writer for an immigration law firm almost two years ago, I feared that the work might be boring. Or worse, legal. Then I learned that I would be translating the research of doctors, medical researchers and basic scientists — many in the biomedical fields — into plain, layperson’s English, and hazy memories of high school biology came flying back. Or rather, they didn’t. I had to Google such basic questions as, “Where is the pancreas?” “What is a pulmonary embolism?” and “What do the four chambers of the heart look like?” Knowing so little about the subjects I needed to write about, I had to educate myself in biology and human anatomy at a rudimentary level, in order to render these subjects convincingly to someone without a background in science.

As my job drafting referee letters for the visa applications of foreign medical graduates progressed, the human body came to life in a way it never had while I passed notes and daydreamed through my high school science classes. In the intervening years, I had studied literature, earned my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and worked to become a professional storyteller. In fact, that’s why I was hired — early in my job, my boss was frustrated by continued obtuseness in my medical writing, and she grilled me: “What’s the story here? Is the great conflict that repairing heart aneurysms is dangerous? That this patch closing the outside of the myocardium engenders dangerous complications? Or that no one had ever thought to look for a better way?”

I dug deeper, calling my clients and asking them to walk me through their complex surgical procedures, to explain the tools required to replace heart valves or suture leg arteries. Their words animated a mysterious new sci-fi galaxy where I now live each day at work: the world of blood cells, organs and digestive juices flowing through our bodies. Some of our clients work at a miniscule level of detail — tracing the interactions of proteins binding with each other within the nucleus of a single cell — while others look at whole organ systems, and create devices that have direct clinical applications for treating any number of diseases.

The most common shared topic across the work of my clients is cancer. It is omnipresent, all-pervasive — cancer is everywhere, and so is cancer research. Explanations of a new cancer type begin with blanket statements like, “Last year, [a giant number of people] were diagnosed with [this type of cancer], and [another surprisingly high number] died from it.” For example, I now know that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, non-small-cell lung cancer is the most common and aggressive sub-type of lung cancer and pancreatic cancer is the most deadly, since it is virtually untreatable if the tumor can’t be surgically removed.

Read Full Article: The war on cancer comes home – Salon.com

Read Full Article: The war on cancer comes home – Salon.com

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