Pore over the transcripts of medical school interviews, and you’d have a hard time telling them apart from the aspirational answers delivered with such commendable poise at beauty pageants. Platitudes abound in both competitions, even if bathing suits and evening gowns are discouraged as attire for pre-med students eager to impress their judges. But just as Miss America contestants parrot their hope for world peace, would-be physicians almost always express a generic desire to “help people.”
I was different than my altruistic peers jockeying for the prize of Most Noble. My drive to be a doctor arose not so much out of a desire to aid my fellow man as from a seething hostility toward what ails them. Cancer had killed my father, and it should prepare to die: my only hate sprung from filial love. I was hellbent on exacting revenge.
My Dad was a theologian who followed the twists & turns through which the Gospels were relayed across the centuries, from the synoptic & Johannine accounts of the early evangelists to the Vulgate, from the illuminated texts of medieval monks to the King James Version, each one a transmission of the original messianic message. Then I watched my Dad succumb to bad writing in his own genetic code, the meticulous scholar doomed by a faulty spellcheck.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was four letters -- A, C, G, & T -- copied over and over. The evolution of our genome represents the ultimate run-on sentence, unspooling upward from bacterium to man in an eternal spiral of near-repetition and refinement. We have sprung from single-celled prokaryotes, our pre-kernels, to become eukaryotes, the good fruit. But that also means we can spoil.
Along the way, mistakes were made in this epochal game of telephone, and the Word was not duplicated correctly. A notable minority of these errors were advantageous, and conferred benefits on those mistakes’ inheritors. It didn’t happen consciously, but these rare accidents were later proven to be happy ones when they enhanced the fitness of their beneficiaries. Many more of these mistranscriptions, though, led to fatal flaws. And so it came to be that I was born of a broken man.
A psychiatrist would have a field day with my motivations, the mourning son striving to be the savior, his rescue efforts forever fated to tardiness. The Kubler-Ross model teaches us that we process the loss of a loved one through denial, anger, bargaining, grief, and acceptance; the mnemonic for these stages is “death arrives, bringing grave adjustments.” But once again I deviated from the template, never quite accepting my Dad’s fate, defiantly maladjusted. If the contemporary obsession with closure meant neatly tying off the loose ends of a fraying psyche, I refused to be knotted. I have stayed deliberately undone.
Like Ahab before me, I became a “scheming, unappeasably steadfast hunter.” Cancer was easily as much a “hooded phantom” as a white whale, if not more so, but I must acknowledge that the captain was not the ideal role model for mental health. At times I have been driven close to despair trying to reconcile my adversary’s lack of reason with its persistent ability to outwit me. And my leviathan dwelled in deeper currents even than Ahab’s quarry.
The origin stories of superheroes are littered with similar traumas, so at least I find myself in good company. My own son's favorite, Batman, arose out of Bruce Wayne getting orphaned at gunpoint, and even if I didn’t lose my Dad in an armed robbery he was still taken from me violently. Peter Parker only started slinging webs after being bitten by both a radioactive spider and the desire to avenge a murdered uncle. Perhaps most resonant for a power-hungry nebbish, Clark Kent’s appearance belied his true strength, but he only found his greater identity after his home planet and biological parents were destroyed.
Coming back down to Earth, who am I kidding? I’m no ubermensch. Occasionally I think I’m better suited for playing the villain, dispensing biohazardous materials with the shaky promise that my victims’ strength might return someday. So there is some justice in my vulnerability to the same toxicity. After handling kryptonite, Lex Luthor got cancer too.
In a different comic universe, Spiderman was gifted with precognition, and so am I. I have met my nemesis. I have scrutinized my genes and seen the blueprint of my own destruction, the recipe for my tumors being prepared on a low boil. When I look at my patients here and now, it’s as if my future self is communicating through a palantir. There, by the grace of God, go I soon.
I love the astonishment that doctors can get sick, when we are no more immune to calamity than the clergy. One need only envision Pope John Paul II, tremulous with Parkinson’s on his balcony at the Vatican, to be reminded that even the head of the Catholic church is not spared from having their body broken like bread. No sacrament could save the Pope from bowing under the weight of his mitre, as even His most favored children find themselves at the mercy of the Father. After all, don’t insurance agents cover unexpected vicissitudes as Acts of God, issuing policies to sinners and saints alike?
What is shocking is not that these things happen, but that we don’t see them coming. The warning is broadcast plainly from 1 Peter 4:12 — “do not be surprised by this painful trial you are suffering.” To err is human, our design divine. This is how we were made: fearfully, wonderfully, mortally. It is inevitable that the most complex machine in our known universe will grind to a halt, as sure to rot as Eden’s apples. The condensed strings of our DNA are finite and shrinking with each iteration, telomeres like eroding icecaps.
This is our lease on life. We are but tenants, pardoned from the eternal damnation of infirmity by death. You don’t own your body, and never have. No matter how much expense and effort you’ve put into its maintenance, restoration, and adornment, one day you will be evicted, probably at a time not of your choosing, at the discretion of a most powerful landlord.
Cancer is the final, brutal proof that you are not the sole proprietor of your flesh and blood. Live long enough, ducking and weaving through the manmade and heaven-sent blows that strike down your neighbors, and it will stake its claim with a total knockout. Even once it’s dropped you to your knees, it will continue pummeling away, with no regard for decency or the Queensberry Rules.
For me the writing has been both on the wall and curlicued in my chromosomes as if encrypted on a scroll. But until that final round of reckoning, that last incantation of an ancient spell cast on fathers and sons alike, I’ll keep trying to ward off this pox on my house.