Determination, and Convocation

English: A publicity photo of the Davis Concer...

This morning at the gorgeous Winspear Centre, which was practically bursting with the majesty of the pipe organ and the excitement of those gathered, I eagerly watched the procession for the face of my sister.

Somehow, in the face of full time work, a busy family life, friends, her husband’s triple bypass surgery, and having to put it all on hold for many months to recover from a serious bleed on her brain a few years ago, she managed to rally the determination to recover fully, sacrifice her weekends for writing papers, and earn a degree from Grant MacEwan University.

She was smiling when I spotted her under her cap.

I was deeply moved from the first second of the ceremony. The vulnerable and terrifying months after the hospital came back to me for a moment, and then made room for relief and pride and joy. And awe. Like my sister, many of those graduating didn’t party their way through university at someone else’s expense; they worked hard to clear all kinds of hurdles, big hurdles. One young woman had earned her certificate in the face of an obvious developmental disability.

Being there to witness this moment made me proud to be a human being.

You did good, little sister, earning this now, after all these years, and all these reasons not to persevere.

Afterwards, my brother-in-law took us all out to the Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse, where we imbibed a little more abandon than we normally might on a Tuesday afternoon, and then we went back to our ordinary lives, the reality of rubbing along with family, co-workers, friends, domestics. But the memory of the morning will linger.



Yesterday, at TEDxEdmonton I discovered I may still have superhero potential after all, at least by neuroscientist Paul Zehr’s logic. It requires not extraordinary giftedness, he says, but rather years of being a decent human being, and rather than being unusually good at any one thing, being pretty good at a wide range of things. This is good news to me, being a decent human being, but very unspecialized in our highly specialized world.

The event was an independently organized TED event held in Edmonton every year in the spirit of TED’s mission—ideas worth spreading—and, while the quality of the presentations varied, it delivered some really great ideas truly worth spreading.

It was an excellent reminder that the seeds and the soil provided by our poets and artists are as essential to innovation as the expertise and talent of our scientists and entrepreneurs. The ideas come first, then the technology, which made the poetry of Mary Pinkoski  the perfect beginning and end to the day’s presentations.

Edmontonian Gerry Morita of Mile Zero Dance also captured this essential but often-overlooked truth about the value of the arts, with her focus on creative collaboration, as did Kris Pearn of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame, who presented a marvelously entertaining illustration of using art to turn failure into success.

Randy Marsden of Cleankeys brilliance illustrated beautifully how scientists who know little about biology can come up with a solution to our seriously high risk of hospital acquired infections, which is our fourth leading cause of death. Darrell Kopke of Lululemon success presented a convincing case for the value putting generosity before profits, and that this order of values need not be in opposition to profitable ventures.

There was much more, and the day’s pleasures included taking in some of the Pride Festivities at lunchtime, and a yummy lunch provided by Elm Cafe’s Nate Box, sitting at a little table in the street outside in the sunshine.

After it all, inspired and energized but slightly stiff from sitting for so long, we pretended to be French and enjoyed a lovely glass of champagne, and then went to check out the street festivities. The rain put a damper on things, quite literally, but we had a fine supper and soaked in the energy of Edmontonians happy to end their season of hibernation. The evening ended on the pleasure of watching my friend (whose strappy sandals had begun to hurt) run barefoot through the rainy wet streets of downtown Edmonton. She’d been complaining of feeling her age and not enjoying being the oldest patrons at Lit. Who cares about age, I wish I’d have thought to say; you’re at least as much fun as the young crowd.

Co-operation central to being human

Co-operation, science has now shown, is at our very core as human beings. Not all the time of course, and not all of us—some are tramplers and climbers more often than they are team players—but still, it’s there. I had my own little personal taste of it this week.

A new-to-me friend recently suggested that I might enjoy a visit with a friend of hers, and put us in touch via Facebook. We met at Starbucks today. Thanks to Facebook we don’t need to wear carnations or any such thing; I recognize her immediately, and we jump right in, swapping cancer experiences.

Hers is different from mine, but even with the differences, the same in so many ways. When she was diagnosed, she went almost overnight from the word cancer hardly being part of her vocabulary, to being told she was stage four, and that it would take her life. Not that it might, that it would, definitely. Nine sites, sites that included lymph and bone. No chemo or radiation at all at this point, maybe as a palliative measure down the road, they tell her. I want to smack the people who told her this, literally, and the way they’ve done it.

No matter what stage we’re at, there should always be room for hope, at least a little.

She goes for a couple of surgeries—she’s not ready to give up as quickly as they are—and then, against the advice of the experts and naysayers, and since they have nothing else to offer at this point, she takes things into her own hands. She sends her records to a doctor using DCA (dichloroacetic acid) with cancer patients. It is as yet still largely untested and, here in Alberta at least, highly controversial for this application. She has little to lose though, and jumps in with both feet.

Her doctors tell her it will kill her, which is odd since they’ve just told her that her cancer will kill her. Whatever. Her cancer is now down to two sites from nine, and she looks great. Really great.

Though this is our first meeting and it is one in the afternoon and we have had nothing but coffee to drink, we share the most intimate of details, and feel understood.  She understands the risks of repressing emotion, and of not repressing it. She understands the words post traumatic stress, and the metallic taste that can come with every follow-up visit to the Cross. She’s told her fiancée that this is not what he signed up for, and that he’s free to leave if he wants, and I understand this completely. I talk about feeling insecure and like a burden in the same breath, and she understands this too.

We move from cancer to our histories, our respective divorces, our families, friends. She’s a biker, I’m an artsy writer-wanna-be sort, but though we’re different we’re bonded now, and I’m thankful for this coffee visit, made possible by the co-operation and generosity of another.


CDC Director Gerberding Gives Green Light to G...

CDC Director Gerberding Gives Green Light to Gardasil then Goes to Work for Merck (g1a2d0049c1) (Photo credit: watchingfrogsboil)

Gardasil. Our doctors and health officials, including Alberta’s chief medical officer Andre Corriveau, say it’s safe, it’s free, just do it. Those who have been harmed by it, and a number of vaccine researchers whose work has found the vaccine to be problematic and who have had the courage to be honest, say think carefully before you comply.

I understand what scientific consensus is. I understand the whole risk/benefit balance, both on the individual and collective level, personal risk for the greater good. But I also understand that science and the media have become corporatized. I’ve heard some of the stories of censorship and dried-up funding first-hand, from both journalists and scientists, and I know how too many missing pieces of the puzzle can change the entire picture.

If you trust our health authorities, great, it’ll be an easy decision for you to get your Gardasil shot. If you don’t, you’ll likely be faced with some condescending judgment about how silly you are not to “be on board with the science”. To that, I’d just like to say this: I am on the side of science, and while the voices of dissent on this issue are kept pretty quiet as far as our media goes, these voices are the voices of scientists also.

I had this conversation last week with Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons on her Facebook wall, and I find the “case closed” mentality on the topic disturbing. She is of course entitled to feel that Albertans ignoring their HPV vaccine are slightly paranoid and poorly informed, but does she mean to imply that the doctors and scientists who disagree with her position are also unduly paranoid and poorly informed?

Vaccine researcher Diane Harper, international HPV expert, professor of medicine at Dartmouth Medical School—clearly not an “anti-vaxer” as dissenting voices are so often referred to—has expressed a number of reservations about Gardasil. In a phone conversation with me a few years ago, she told me that she’s not at all comfortable with Gardasil being offered to young women under the age of 15, as the safety research was done in women over the age of 15. Speaking at the Fourth International Public Conference on Vaccination several years ago, she told her audience that the rate of serious adverse events is in fact a major concern. She also said that the threat of cervical cancer has been exaggerated, that incidence in the developed world is low, with four out of five cases occurring in the developing world. In an interview with the Huffington Post, she said “pap smears alone prevent more cervical cancers than can the vaccines alone,” and “if Gardasil is given to 11 year olds, and the vaccine does not last at least fifteen years, then there is no benefit—and only risk—for the young girl”.

The reason for her honesty, she said, is that she needs to be able to sleep at night. Can somebody please tell me how she isn’t a credible source, and how taking her seriously can possibly be labeled as paranoia?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) lists cervical cancer as a rare disease. In Canada, it is responsible for about one percent of all cancer deaths. What we have here is a vaccine that offers some temporary protection against two of many possible factors associated with a rare disease that in fact has many causes, and that may or may not strike decades later. It is a vaccine that protects against just two strains of a virus that actually only very rarely go on to cause cancer—ninety-five percent of HPV infections are cleared spontaneously by our immune systems, and of the remaining five percent, only a small number go on to develop into cervical cancer.

Yes, I’m aware that these two strains are associated with the majority of cervical cancers, but that isn’t the same as a direct line between the two all the time, or even most of the time. There are in fact many factors involved, as an August 2009 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reminded us. Other significant risk factors that rarely get discussed include smoking, long-term use of the birth control pill, unprotected promiscuous sex, poverty, and inadequate nutrition.

This temporary protection against two of the factors linked to cervical cancer happens to come with some rare but extremely serious adverse effects that have struck down too many young women on the cusp of their adult lives.

As to Simons’ reference to an “insidious international anti-vaccination movement” that “sees vaccines of all sorts as a Big Pharma plot,” I’ll say this: It’s not a plot, but the fact is that vaccines are business. Merck, as reported by CNN Money a few years ago, needed Gardasil to climb out of the financial hole left by Vioxx and the millions they’d been ordered to pay out in injury compensation. “We have high expectations for Gardasil,” Tim Anderson of Prudential Equity Group had written in an analyst’s note.

They had high expectations, and went to work. In a New York Times piece in August of 2009, Diane Harper had this to say about the influence of business interests: “Merck lobbied every opinion leader, women’s group, medical society, politician, and went directly to the people—it created a sense of panic that says you have to have this vaccine now.”

It appears, as Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine has put it, that the pharmaceutical industry has co-opted “every institution that might stand in its way, including the US Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, academic medical centers, and the medical profession itself.”

So we have an exaggerated threat coming from those with vested interests, and we have a vaccine that offers limited protection and has been plagued by some significant rates of serious adverse events. Would this not make caution before jumping on board prudent?

As to the horrors of cancer that are so often trotted out, and were cited by Andre Corriveau, I know them. I’ve had cancer. But this vaccine is not the protection we’re led to believe it is. And when things do go wrong with a vaccine, the horrors too often match those of cancer. Dr. Scott Ratner told CBS his daughter was so ill with the autoimmune disease that came in the wake of her first Gardasil shot that she’d have been better off getting cervical cancer than the vaccine.

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s becoming harder and harder to feel like the corporate media is doing the job it’s supposed to be doing.

Why we blog, and A Taste of Summer

I took this at The Enjoy Centre this morning, on our way in to brunch with an unlikely but wonderful little group of friends we meet with once a month. It’s the most enormous greenhouse I’ve ever been in, gorgeous, and permits Edmontonians little tastes of summer and virtual patio-dining long before summer actually arrives here in Alberta.

I took it because my eyes are hungry for beauty at this time of year. We’re well into spring, by the calendar, but the ice has been off the lake for just a week or so, and the trees are mostly still bare.

Over my Reuben, one of my friends, Millie, suggested my blog functions kind of like a journal for me. She’s right, though of course there’s much I’d put into a journal but not publish. But it got me thinking about why I—why any of us—blog.

Bloggers blog for all kinds of reasons, from what I can see—reasons that range from therapeutic ones, to growing their business, to a generous sharing of ideas and information, to just being addicted to the keyboard. Many of us write just for the sake of writing.

I do write as therapy; Millie’s quite right. I’m in need of all things therapeutic at this post-cancer, menopausal (not-quite-ready-to-work-tons-but-often-lonely-and-not-quite-ready-to-retire) point in my life. I write to organize and clarify my thoughts and feelings, to share with others what I’ve learned or experienced or discovered, to talk to others who may have  had similar thoughts or experiences or points of view, and because I miss the community of readers I had when I was writing a health column a couple of years ago. Those conversations honed my thinking, and expanded it, and gratified me in many ways, and one of my goals is to rebuild a little of that community.

I also write because I’m one of those with itchy fingers; I just need to write. I sometimes write because I need a break from what I’m doing, and have nobody in the next office or cubicle to exchange a hello with. I often write to finish unfinished conversations too, hence the tagline of the site. (I almost always have afterthoughts in the wake of social interactions, and it’s a nice way to tidy up the loose ends.)

So there it is. I’m one of hundreds of thousands out there doing it. I follow bloggers who offer me the kind of information I’m after, fresh insights, and—maybe most important to me—those who offer me their humanity. And, for right now at least, I’m enjoying adding my own little melody to the vast and fascinating symphony of sound out there.

It’s not for everyone of course—some people don’t like to write, most are far too busy with more concretely productive ventures, and many are too private for it. But I’ve found amazing connections through writing in the past—met wonderful people, some of whom have become wonderful friends.

Why do you blog, or not? Chime in, please, it’ll be fun.