Generally speaking, the current state of the world does not put a spring in my step. But then, every so often, I intersect with a story that reaffirms my belief that our country, our world, is, in fact, heading in the right direction. Sometimes it’s an anecdote I hear, maybe it’s a phone call from my dad, or maybe something I read in The Star or watch on television. Two weeks ago it came in the form of a story on PBS that ran for three days.
Maybe you saw it.
Ken Burns was the executive producer of “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” a series inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title, written by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.
It was the kind of reporting that sticks with you. That rolls around in your head when you sit in your car and wait for the light to change. The story you discuss with your wife on the couch, between topics like “have you seen the cat the last two days?”
And it’s still swirling in my head. The essence of the documentary was to chronicle the fight against cancer over the past hundred years or so. The series included historical perspectives, interviews with contemporary researchers and stories about cancer survivors. Some of the focus was on the many mistaken assumptions about cancer over the years — both its origins and the optimal treatment options. One interesting segment highlighted the shift away from radical mastectomies in the late 1970s.
But what struck me, more than anything else, were the interviews with the leading cancer researchers. Men and women from hospitals you hear in the news whenever there are major advancements against diseases. Unless you or your family member is diagnosed with cancer; then you may know them well. Such was the case when my father-in-law was diagnosed with a glioblastoma 19 years ago. He ended up going to Duke.
The story focused largely on institutions like Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, M.D. Anderson and universities like Princeton. Researchers like Arnold Levine, a biology professor at the Princeton Institute and a cancer researcher, shared their perspectives. Levine discovered a protein that subdues cancer cells. Other leaders featured included Richard Klausner, former director of NCI; Dr. Hagop Kantarjarian, the chairman of leukemia, M.D. Anderson; Bert Vogelstein, at Johns Hopkins; and Silvia Formenti at NYU Med Center.
Some researchers were profiled using early photos of them in their labs — black and white photos, typically staring into a microscope, grainy, unposed Kodak shots representing someone fully engaged in the moment.
And yes there were profiles of cancer survivors, including moving portrayals of toddlers who lived to celebrate many birthdays and interviews with their parents, expressing profound gratitude for the talents of those who largely remain anonymous.
Yet it was the men and women who do the work, who spend years in laboratories laboring in relative obscurity that moved me. It heartens me to know that in our country, the smartest young men and women still want to be physicians, Ph.D.s in fields like immunologic therapy and gene mapping. People not motivated by anything other than finding cures.
Each one profiled presented that “smart look:” gray hair, sometimes balding, and all with expressive eyes that represented years of seeing in their patients pain, disappointment, yet also hope and in many cases, cures.
And just as cancer does not discriminate, neither does their work. Young, old, rich, poor, white, black.
Yes, I’m incredibly fatigued with the triumph of the trivial, stupid, juvenile, inconsequential, illogical, inane, “look at me” culture. Continually reminding me what my dad told me once, “an empty can makes the most noise.” I sometimes wonder if we are not raising a generation consumed with creating Instagram followers, a selfie nation, someone for whom during a good turn didn’t need to be videotaped and broadcast to the world. What someone recently described as obsessive self- documentation.
In the back hallways at Stanford University hospital, I doubt anyone is discussing how to use a selfie stick.
So I’m going to add Mukherjee’s book to my reading list and continue supporting KCPT. Now if I could figure out how to block the Bravo, E! and Lifetime channels.
Freelance columnist Matthew Keenan writes on the first and third Wednesday of the month. His book “Call Me Dad, Not Dude, the sequel” is sold at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Visit his blog at matthewkeenan.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.