Wednesday, May 21, 2008

This Is Your Brain On Cancer

The brain has many things to do when it's not being glamorous. One of them, apparently, is to grow tumors. That's what happened to Ted Kennedy, as it did not long ago to a member of my family (whose prognosis is currently good), to a friend of long standing and to another longtime friend with whom I am in intermittent touch.

The tumors of the first two turned out to be cancerous (and, in the case of my family member, unmetastasized). The second two had tumors that were aggressive (in one case returning twice after surgery) but nonmalignant.

I have been thinking a lot about the brain lately because I've been reading the wonderful This Is Your Brain On Music, about which I will write more when I'm finished. It's literally impossible to imagine life without the brain, which on some Descartean level makes us possible, and difficult to envision it being crowded or eaten away by something distinctly unbrainlike.

Unlike my mom and stepmom, who are both breast cancer survivors, I am not fluent in cancer. But it has always struck me as the body's no-holds-barred steel-cage match with itself, the war of cells gone evil trying to destroy good cells, and with the brain it seems particularly vicious, those gliomic marauders bent on destroying memory, intelligence, coordination and the other things that help us recognize ourselves as us.

The odds of my getting cancer are relatively high, and I do what I can to lower those odds with lots of exercise and vegetables and regular mammograms. (Visit The Breast Cancer Site to help poor women get more of them.)

But if I get to choose which kind of cancer (which I won't), I'd rather lose my breasts than my brain. As I know from living in LA for years, I can always get new breasts.

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