Book Club: Promise Me, Dad
The main reason I picked up Promise Me, Dad was that I knew it was about Joe Biden's experience seeing his son through his battle with brain cancer, which is the same cancer that attacked my dad, my family.
I'd always found Joe to be a steady, respectable and respectful man, regardless of anyone's opinions about his politics (saying this to my super-Republican family, hiiiii). I knew his book would be plain-spoken and heartfelt. What's so sad to me is that I keep seeing brain cancer pop up everywhere. It seems to be the cancer of the moment. Any cancer becoming more prevalent is awful—one as aggressive and deadly as this one is particularly disconcerting. Maybe it's just my current life lens, but it seems like it's been hitting some highly-visible people the last several years (Beau Biden, John McCain, Ted Kennedy). Maybe I'm seeing it more because I know it. Maybe it really is more prevalent. Maybe we're just more aware. I'm glad Joe's book is helping the world understand it better.
One of the things I always reference when I talk about my dad's cancer is this exact moment Joe mentions in Promise Me, Dad:
As part of our care plan, patients got scans about every eight weeks. A few months before he was put on hospice, my dad had an MRI just like Beau's. Necrosis is essentially scar tissue and the way the black and white MRIs work, you can't tell the difference between that and new growth. It just shows up as big white spots on the scans, which is scary. Brain cancer is amazingly aggressive. Even if a surgeon removes the entire tumor, it leaves behind little microscopic tentacles. Imagine those sea anemones with little fingers shooting off of them. The ones you see at the aquarium and in middle school science videos when you teacher feels like taking the day off from the white board and flips on an educational video. Those little left behind fingers grow and multiply. For most people, it's not a matter of if. So, a black and white scan that shows "something" is showing the difference between a little more life and a potentially more-imminent death.
When our team saw my dad's scan like Beau's, they said to wait until the next MRI to see if the masses had gotten bigger. Knowing how aggressive this cancer was, we thought that was an absolutely INSANE suggestion. Our hospital had the technology available—3D MRI machines—but was unwilling to use it to tell us for sure what we were seeing.
So we went to UCLA. We got my dad a 3D MRI there that showed his white spots on the original scan were actually necrosis and not new growth. That was a huge relief to us, and we breathed a little easier for a few weeks, proudly sporting our UCLA t-shirts. My dad didn't want to go, though. He said he "didn't want to chase windmills." I think he was scared. I think he was overwhelmed. I think he trusted our team. I can't be completely sure. He protected me from a lot of his real feelings about it all. That was his job, after all. Dads protect their daughters. It was a job he deeply cared to do well.
My dad was like Beau. He agreed to and with all suggestions from our team. And our team was great—really great. However, in these kinds of life or death medical situations, I don't believe you can ever be too vigilant. Someone has to be the hyper-aggressive health advocate. My mom is and was that person for us. She pushed my dad onto that plane to LA. She got us into a brain cancer conference to learn more, to meet other people like us, and to conveniently run into the doctor we wanted to do another scan.
I've brought that lesson with me into my life, the lesson of health vigilance, even when it seems minor. When my slightly nutty OBGYN told me I probably had PCOS because of my irregular cycles, I found a specialist who could tell me for sure. When the specialists wanted us to start trying IUI before my body was fully weaned from 15 years of birth control, I consulted homeopaths and a few too many online forums. When my new OB told me my pants were tight and to "avoid the carbs" when I gained 5 pounds in my first trimester of pregnancy, I moved to a team of midwives. Never compromise for mediocre—or uncomfortable—care or a team of physicians who aren't going above and beyond. Go above and beyond for yourself, and if you can't, find someone who will fight for you. This I will preach until the day I die.
I'm so glad Promise Me, Dad exists. It helped me understand my dad's cancer better. It helped me feel less alone in our journey, and it re-inspired my passion for finding the best medical team for our family in all cases.
Now you'll have to excuse me while I find a new dentist because the one I've been going to for the past nine years of adulthood has asked, without fail, "So, enjoying a school break?"
Flattered, but no.