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I used to joke, morbidly, that I knew one day I would get cancer. Both my paternal grandparents died from the disease, and my dad is a two-time cancer survivor. And so, in my mind, there was no question. I knew it was going to happen; I just didn’t know when.
I stopped joking about cancer nearly 10 years ago, when my younger brother, Craig, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was 26. At first, there was simply disbelief, followed by intense anger. Within hours of diagnosis, Craig was admitted to the hospital to receive massive doses of chemotherapy.
A few months later, Craig was in remission but still had years of treatment ahead of him. He moved in with my parents in the San Francisco suburbs so he could have their support and be in the kind of clean environment necessary for his compromised immune system. And he would be closer to his third oncologist, Dr. Jeffrey Wolf, who worked closely with another physician, Dr. Archie Bleyer, on Craig’s treatment for a total of three years.
I was reminded of those two men as I read “Chipping Away” (page 114), features editor Lindsey B. Koehler’s moving account of the doctors and researchers in Colorado who are treating and researching cancer. The sheer brainpower and scientific know-how these doctors possess is something to behold. “The brilliance, ingenuity, and relentlessness of the physicians I met was humbling,” Koehler says. “These are the kinds of people you hope are out there working on difficult problems. I can tell you: They are here in Colorado.” As I read the stories in Koehler’s piece, I was also reminded of the humanity of these healers. My favorite line in the package comes from Dr. Alan Feiner, a hematologist and oncologist at Rose Medical Center, who told Koehler: “The two most important pieces of medical equipment I own are my two ears.” It’s a simple statement that signifies so much: the ability to listen, to counsel, to guide. Just as I’m sure Feiner has become close with many of his patients, my brother and my parents developed intimate relationships with Wolf and Bleyer. They saw each other frequently; talked on the phone; and emailed. What amazed me was the empathy these doctors brought to the job, the optimism that never wavered, even when things didn’t look great. These people are much more than doctors; they are friends, confidantes, and extended members of the family.
Craig has been cancer free for almost 10 years now, and as I write this, my family and I are preparing to fly to San Diego for his wedding. The Southern California city is where he was diagnosed, and so, in many ways, the nuptials will symbolically close one difficult chapter of his life and open another one—one which would not have been possible without Craig’s perseverance, my parents’ support, and the doctors’ inspired, and inspiring, care. And so when Craig and his fiancée, Jen, were putting together the invite list for the wedding, there were two names they were sure to include: Dr. Jeffrey Wolf and Dr. Archie Bleyer.