Science and Philosophy: Friend or Foe? A Guest Post at A Philosopher’s Take

Increasingly the lines are blurred between a strict empirical pursuit of experimental observation that is practiced in the laboratory, “on the bench,” as researchers say, and philosophical investigation of the world, “from the armchair,” which is an image of philosophy that draws criticism from some and raises the ire of many philosophers who see their work as more substantive than a priori reflection on topics detached from the natural world of experience.

Both portraits–the empirically-driven scientist and the armchair philosopher, are caricatures. Scientists adopt philosophical presuppositions that inform their experimental design to derive empirical data. Famously, Einstein’s moment of illumination on the path toward articulating his theory of special relativity was conceived by ‘thought experiment.’

There is a worry held by many contemporary philosophers that ‘scientism’ is on the rise, to the detriment of philosophy. Scientism is defined as unqualified deference to the empirical sciences as the only method by which a serious investigator pursues truth.

My attitude toward inquiry finds a seat at the table for both careful thought and careful experimentation. These are not mutually exclusive methods. I resist the idea that ‘scientism’ threatens philosophy, yet I also affirm that our philosophical positions should not wander so far from science that our philosophical theories become incompatible with evidence derived from the bench.

I recently wrote my first (of hopefully many) posts for the  public philosophy blog, A Philosopher’s Take. There I explore this issue of philosophy and the threat of scientism, and I ultimately argue that scientism is a non-threat to contemporary analytic philosophy. If you’ve found these brief paragraphs interesting, I hope you’ll click over to read my recent post.

Independence and Isolation

I gave up independence in the pre-op prep room, which feels very much like prison booking protocol, as it appears on cop dramas. A curtain is drawn but provides little in the way of privacy as busy nurses step in and out to place an IV, or ask for patient consent to treat. “We would like to save your tissue for research, if you consent to this, please sign here.” I undress and stuff my clothes–a hoodie, jeans, my sambas, into an evidence bag, well, not literally an evidence bag, but you know, it’s plastic, transparent, draw string at the top, your last name is scribbled on the bag like a Starbucks barista.

“Tall Flat White for Alan.”

“It’s Adam.”


“Never mind.”

“May I use the restroom?”

“Sure, sweetie, it’s just down the hallway.”

I shuffle down the busy corridor, other patients peaking out from their curtains, I step into the bathroom across the hall from another pre-op room, I make eye contact with the patient and family in that room. We go under the knife soon, and we wait for our names to be called to finish the booking process. We sign our names on a photo copied, off center form, naming a healthcare representative.

“Just in case something should happen in the OR, this person is responsible for making medical decisions on your behalf.”

I glance at Whitney.

The die is cast.

The stripping of one’s independence leaves one with dependency. In this case, dependency on my wife, who, in that moment, became my caregiver, my power of attorney, and my named beneficiary. Our relationship will not return to the moments prior to my signing of that form, behind a loosely drawn curtain, gowned, exposed, needy, uncertain. This is no longer a relationship on equal footing.

We offer an oath, “In sickness and in health,” and this is an oath of loyalty, of commitment, “like the ring, a circle, that symbolizes love, with no beginning and with no end.” Yet, there is an end for each of us, and unlike the end many of us experience, my end will include slow and steady loss of executive function and my wife, fulfilling her role as caregiver, will be there to assist, and the impact this has on a marriage, even in times of health, is untold.

The arc of inpatient admission is to quickly strip a patient of their independence, to sanitize the handing over of autonomy to the medical professionals, then to methodically reconstruct independence until a patient is discharged. Days later the evidence bag is returned to you. Your hand tremors as you open the bag. You are changed from the person who wore the hoodie into the hospital at 5:00am on May 26, 2016.

The road to recovery is a prison walk with other patients and guards. The guards restrict your diet, your activities, and your visitors. The other patients are shackled with you, and regardless of our identities pre-booking, we are now bonded together, marching toward our release dates. Each of us pines for our independence. We dream of independence. We visualize freedom: to toilet in a private bathroom, to eat what we want, to pull the needles from our arms.

Independence will return me to my rightful place in the world.

But. It doesn’t.

Independence brings isolation.

Each Friday Whitney leaves for work around 6:30am, I dress the kids for their days, Isaac takes the bus to school, my parents deliver Noah to his preschool, and they take Gideon for a day at their house, at his grandparents. By 9:15am I have cleaned the breakfast dishes, washed the coffee pot for tomorrow morning, and I take my place at the dining table, open my laptop, thumb through the pages of whatever journal article is on my agenda to read that morning, and I stare straight ahead for ten minutes and fight back tears.

Gowned. Exposed. Dependent. Uncertain.

I regained my independence first by wheeling my own wheelchair, then by transferring independently from wheelchair to bed, then came the walker, the cane, steps with no assistance, and at each stage there is cause for celebration. When I was discharged the stages of independence continued: helping with watching the kids, then rocking one or two for bed, watching them for short periods while Whitney is away, and finally, I have all the kids for long stretches, even overnights, with no assistance.

This feat of childcare may seem to you as my natural responsibility as a father to my beautiful boys, and I agree. I share this because of special note is this: there are three of them, they are aged six and under, and anecdotally I know a handful of dads who struggle with their one or two kids for even a couple hours while their loved ones run an errand or grab coffee with friends. Three boys, all day and overnight, dressed, fed, and not dead is an accomplishment in independence for any guardian to young children.

This independence is not always the celebration I imagined.

Each stage of independence brings more isolation. I am dependent on others for help with transportation. Even though I am able to have all three kids, it is a struggle, and many in both my and Whitney’s family help a tremendous amount. And I thank you. But needing to rely on others does emphasize my limitations.

I am independent every Friday. Whitney is working. Kids are at school. My folks have Gideon. I work hard on those things that have become my work: reading, researching, writing, blogging, networking to schedule my next speaking event. Yet, in my freedom, I am isolated. The isolation is a feature of my dependency. I am proud and happy not to require daily, 24/7, help from others. I am proud that Whitney is able to take more and more time to focus on her self care, and is not so ceaselessly consumed with the care of her dependents, but make no mistake, indeed, I am a dependent in this relationship, no longer a marriage on equal footing, but one that tests the limits of “sickness and health.” We are in a marriage tested by our circumstances. Here I write, in the gap between independence and dependency, and in this space that is occupied by very few others, I am met with isolation.


No Convincing Evidence: An MRI Story

I have endured 14 or 15 MRIs in these past 15 or 16 months. That is quite a few. I worry about side effects of prolonged exposure to the contrast agent gadolinium, which is injected by IV at each MRI. For that matter, I worry about my IV blowing a vein when the gadolinium is “pushed”! I worry that I’ve forgotten a metal artifact in my pants or shirt pocket that will be ripped from my clothing and ricochet around the tube like an errant bullet. (I think there was an episode of House about that.) I worry that I’ll nod off 30 minutes into the scan, jolt awake, and have to restart the sequence of images for failure to hold still enough. (There was also that one functional MRI scan that required motor and language tasks to be performed while the images were captured, and I felt very nearly brainwashed, but I only say that for dramatics.)

But most of all, I worry that this will be the scan to reveal new tumor growth or recurrence. Everything you read about glioblastoma includes some version of the description, “aggressive, deadly, poor prognosis, incurable.” My neuro-oncologist told me, “it is very unlikely that you will not have recurrence.” Another doctor (whose name and title remain nameless) took the breaking of bad news a step further when he told me and my wife during an office visit, “you know you’re going to die from this, don’t you?”

This week I had an MRI scan on Monday, my every-eight-week immersion into the tube, and today, I want to spend a little time writing about the process of undergoing monitoring for chronic and advanced illnesses. People often say to persons with chronic illness to, “keep a positive attitude,” and it turns out this is excellent advice, but our loved ones who speak these words have little in mind of the experience the person with illness is enduring. I hope to offer insight into the obstacles for keeping up a positive attitude.


Radiology Report from my scan on August 28, 2017; 15 months post-diagnosis.

The term “scanxiety” is fairly well known around the cancer community. The term speaks to the feelings of anxiety, depression, fear, and stress surrounding an upcoming scan or test to monitor disease progression. Scanxiety may set in days before a scan and may stick around for a few days following. What is problematic about this feeling is its seeming contradictory nature in the face of the general public’s attitude toward disease. Diseases are to be “beat,” we are “cancer warriors,” we will take on our disease and, “kick it’s ass,” because, “you got this.” Our friends, family, coworkers, sometimes medical team, and many other acquaintances want to cheer us on like we’re marching off to war–hell, President Nixon declared it a “War on Cancer” when he authorized expanded budget and autonomy for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 1970.

In an MRI machine a patient lay motionless, often in scrubs, under the oppressive sounds of the giant magnet, if a head MRI you’ll be latched into an immobilization mask, and typically an IV is placed in one of your arms. You take deep breaths. You feel very much out of control of the circumstance, of your own body, and of the disease that grips you. This is scanxiety. Yet, when you checked into the imaging facility on Facebook your friends all said, “you got this!”

I feel anxiety, and its origin is not only the scan itself, but it is my deep sense of fear and sadness juxtaposed against people’s calling on me to fight, to battle, to kick its ass, to be brave, and don’t worry, because “prayers up.” In an effort to be encouraging to our loved ones we launch a barrage of empty platitudes and weak analogies.

This is scanxiety.

The eight week countdown to the scan is wait enough, but there is plenty more waiting to be found. Because of health care restrictions my imaging facility and neuro oncologist are affiliated with separate institutions. Following my scan I submit for a disc to be created, which can be picked up 24 hours following my scan. I then take the disc to my oncologist’s office, and wait either for a call or for my office visit the following week. My only glance at results following the scan is the radiology report you see pictured above, which is typically posted three to four days after the MRI.

Standard language appears on this report, including the imaging techniques and “signals,” e.g. T1, T2, FLAIR, etc., and you’ll also notice standard diagnosis language, “malignant neoplasm of parietal lobe,” and procedural terms, “resection,” and anatomical identifiers, “posterior right parietal lobe.” Each of these are vitally important for the language of medicine in our fee for service, reimbursement-driven culture of American healthcare. See, my diagnosis is coded with a unique identifier from the International Classification of Diseases, in its 10th edition (ICD-10), and this code allows for certain procedures, also coded with unique identifiers from, for example, the Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) code set. My healthcare providers are only reimbursed for CPT codes allowed under certain rules associated with my ICD-10 code.

I share this with you to help folks understand how deeply entrenched our coding and classification systems are to report on the experience of a patient living with illness within our current healthcare system. Because my medical team resides within different institutions, I know that when a specialist writes an order for me  that will cross these institutional boundaries, I need to check for accuracy in my name, date of birth, insurance details, maybe my medical record number, usually my diagnosis code, and so on. Each of these logistical details are also held in mind when showing up for a scan. My MRIs run about $5,000 each, every two months, so it’s the best interest of my family that we’ve crossed our t’s with insurance.

What is not standard in this report is the language used by the radiologist who reads the scan and prepares the radiology report. I was motivated to write this blog post today because of the particularly nuanced language appearing in the “Impression” of the report: “…without convincing evidence of progression.” When reporting these results to a friend I said, “[this conclusion] is a respectfully conservative claim I like as a philosopher, but not necessarily the certainty I’d like as a person with brain cancer.”


We tell our loved ones living with chronic and advanced illness to keep a positive attitude. This advice is good for us all, yes? Life is that much better when we approach it day to day with light heartedness, care and concern for others, a sense of humor, and yes, above all, “a positive attitude.” As you help friends and family navigate the challenges of illness, especially advanced or chronic illness, remember that often the symptoms of disease are second-place to our worry, anxiety, stress, and depression. My best news this week is not that my cancer has not grown any more, but it’s that there is no convincing evidence to conclude that it had. This is humbling and worrisome, but it is also liberating to free myself from the pursuit of certainty I may never attain, and so I have learned to be happy with evidence that is at best only indicative.

Measuring Outcomes: What the Newly Diagnosed Should Know

I open this post by offering key definitions that are helpful to anyone impacted by a cancer diagnosis, directly or indirectly, which speaks to nearly half of the population of the United States. Indeed, “Approximately 38.5 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer of any site at some point during their lifetime” (reference). I explain the standard metrics for monitoring cancer response to treatment, and I discuss the role of these metrics in determining the standard of care protocol. I conclude with a discussion of the cancer experience that is not so easily quantified, or captured by the established metrics. My aim is that in this article, persons relatively new to the cancer experience may find tools to better equip their journey. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) offers a similar resource on understanding cancer prognosis (here).


Standards of care for treating cancer—that is, the established “protocols” for how, when, in what sequence, and guidelines for determining dosage, vary by cancer type, yet for at least 50 years, the general cancer treatment program is colorfully, if not cynically, called “slash and burn,” referring to the twin procedures of surgery and radiation therapy. Or, “slash, burn, and poison,” when cytotoxic (cell-killing) chemotherapy agents are ordered following surgery and radiation. The new era of “precision medicine,” which employs highly specialized treatments engineered to target the biological characteristics of a person’s cancer, promises to discard this primitive slash, burn, and poison program, but to date, hugely successful outcomes that result from targeted therapies in trial for quite specific cancers have failed to be borne out clinically in the general cancer patient population. In short, for all the hype of precision medicine, day-to-day treatment protocols across the country maintain the status quo.


The aim of any treatment protocol is to offer the therapy, singularly or in combination with others, that is most likely to produce the greatest degree of therapeutic efficacy, or “disease response.” Therapeutic efficacy, disease response, is measured with sophisticated diagnostic imaging tools such as MRI, CT, or PET scans. The overarching therapy effectiveness metric for cancer types is quantified by median overall survival (OS), meaning the time after diagnosis when half the measured population has died and the other half is still living. Median progression free survival (PFS) offers a similar metric quantifying the time following diagnosis that half the population has experienced disease growth or recurrence and the other half has not. Take my case, glioblastoma, with a median OS of roughly 15 months (reference). This indicates that 15 months following diagnosis, half of the diagnosed population is no longer living, and half of the population is continuing to live. My current time since diagnosis is today (August, 2017), 15 months out, meaning statistically, half of those who were diagnosed around the same time I was have since passed away. Some died very quickly after diagnosis, and others will live three, four, five, sometimes six or eight years longer. Of course I aim to be included in those outliers showing long-term survival of five or more years.


Protocols are tested against current standards of care, typically in randomized control trials, to measure OS and PFS against the current medians for the standard of care. Regulatory bodies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for example, approve drugs, devices, and procedures, when those therapies increases either OS or PFS for the trial population above the current standard of care, without an intolerable side effect profile, or increased toxicity. Trial therapies that perform better than current standards, or when no current standard is established, have a likely chance to be approved. Sustained improvement in key metrics over time, reported in longevity studies, meaning spanning long time frames, or meta-analyses, meaning spanning large and diverse populations, may lead to a revision or new standard of care for a cancer type that is treated by the newly approved therapy.


In short, the standard of care is established for umbrella categories of cancer types based on measuring the same key metrics across large populations over a long period of time. Those therapies, or combination of therapies, that maximize OS and PFS, while mitigating toxicity are selected as the ongoing standard of care.


The politics of drug discovery and approval involve governmental regulatory agencies, multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industries, and culturally embedded research paradigms. That is all too much to thoughtfully discuss in this article. I will say only this: reimbursement drives the systemic treatment of cancer. Standard of care therapies are typically covered by health insurers, but many experimental treatments or so-called “off-label drugs,” that is, drugs approved in the treatment of one disease that show promise for treating other diseases but are not yet proven in randomized control trials, often are not covered by insurance. Relatedly, the genomic sequencing that is required to determine the appropriate “precision medicine” to target a person’s specific cancer variant is currently not covered by the majority of health insurers.


Standard of care offers patients the protocol with the statistically demonstrated best shot at long-term survival. Standard of care is also the protocol commonly covered by insurance. On its face, this is a good thing that insurance covers the standard of care for a disease, but there is at least one downside. This schema ties patient treatment options to governmental budgeting priorities and big money lobbyists. In a purely hypothesized scenario, but not one divorced from reality, if a lawmaker hears from her lobbyist from big pharma that disease X is well controlled with approved treatment Y, then the prospect to increase funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may appear less pressing to the lawmaker who sees little reason to pay the big price tag of experimental research, when the lobbyist is showing their company’s success rates. This introduces a feedback loop where the government fails to fund research, insurance companies have little reason to reimburse experimental therapies, and patients are offered fewer options to explore cutting edge therapies. It is for these reasons that I advocate for increased research funding for the NIH, its subsidiary arm, the NCI, and not-for-profits, like the National Brain Tumor Society (NBTS) who equip persons affected by brain tumors to raise their voices to lawmakers who may only be hearing one side of the experimental research budgeting issue.


Taking stock, so far I have roughly defined key metrics put in service to monitor the effectiveness of our treatment protocols, I have explained how these metrics are used to revise standards of care, and I have revealed one issue with our reimbursement-driven healthcare system, namely, that it serves as a barrier to funding trial research. Now, I turn my attention to the experience of illness—something not easily reported by standardized metrics. To resolve this issue, patients must learn to tell their stories! The fields of medicine and pharmaceuticals are becoming more interested in something called patient reported outcomes (PRO). These PRO metrics speak to the quality of life impact given a selected treatment protocol, but constructing a narrative, with the support of friends, family, and trusted clinical practitioners, is the best way for a patient to share their experience with lawmakers and medical teams to serve as a catalyst for change—whether the change is to ask congress for budgeting priorities or frame a conversation with a patient’s clinical specialist.


Harnessing the power of story telling can also be a powerful tool to communicate with loved ones who struggle to know how best to respond to the illness experience.


I disengaged my friend group at each of three milestones in my life: first, when I started grad school, I lost friends to my study commitments; I picked up an evening job in the service industry to help care for my kids during the day, attend class in the afternoon, and bartend for income at night. Second, when my wife and I grew our family by having kids, my friends were mostly grad students and bartenders, not the most family-friendly groups, and adjusting to family life created a rift in some of these relationships; third, when I was diagnosed with aggressive and incurable brain cancer.


I cancel on friends often: dinner plans, concerts, hanging out to catch the Cubbies play, I cancel these plans all the time. Sometimes because I am fatigued, sometimes because I know the environment will trigger a focal seizure, or at least bring on seizure-like symptoms: left-sided numbness, light-headedness, dizziness, and headache, or for what has been the case recently, I cancel because I just want to be home, with my wife and kids nearby. Brain cancer has dynamically changed my relationship with my wife. The emotional burden we carry cannot be overstated. The metrics, the open trials, morning email bulletins from medical news outlets all twist and turn their way through my mind each day. My wife works hard in a trauma hospital to support our family, to be the only driver in our home to get each of us in our family of five to where we need to be, to carry our family’s medical benefits, and she manages our monthly budget. She and I are both exhausted. She needs more sleep than she gets. I need support from friends who understand, but with a disease incidence rate of three in 100,000 and only 5% of the diagnosed population living five years, it is difficult to find a friend locally who shares my diagnosis, and among my non-cancer friends, it is tough to find one who not only listens, but who understands. I look for emotional support from my wife, which places yet more burden on my care partner to fulfill multiple roles in my life.


I read, write, and research daily, fearing that I must approach my “work”—blogging, public speaking, working on a manuscript, with urgency because the course of my disease, or the effects of the treatments to control the disease, in time will negatively impact my higher level cognitive functioning. Here I am, a head full of medical knowledge, self-imposed restrictions on having pizza and beer, pretty disengaged from new music, sports news, and pop culture, and never much wanting to do anything other than do each day only those things that contribute to the big goals I set out for myself before I reach my dot on the overall survival normalization curve.


Practicing how we construct our stories to communicate these emotions, decisions, and reactions in a way to inform our friends and family and not alienate them is an acquired skill that will take each person impacted by a cancer diagnosis, directly or indirectly, some time to cultivate. It is my hope that equipped with the language in this article, and the glimpse into my personal experience, you may find your attention to these issues more focused.

Making Sense of the Senseless

A classic sketch featuring Dana Carvey as Tom Brokaw aired on Saturday Night Live in 1996. The comedic premise has Brokaw (Carvey) pre-taping former President Gerald Ford obituaries to “cover all contingencies,” while Brokaw prepares to spend the winter in Barbados, presumably then unavailable to cover breaking news. Brokaw is reporting the fictional/possible “Gerald Ford shot dead” story, when his producer prompts Brokaw to include the word “senseless” (marker 1:10 in the linked video). Brokaw reports, “Gerald Ford shot dead today at the senseless age of 83”; the crowd erupts in laughter.

Of course it’s not the age of former President Ford that is senseless, but his assassination. This post is not on the mechanics of humor, but there is something instructive about this joke, grounded in what we mean by “senseless.” President Ford’s age is easily accounted for, and not something arbitrarily assigned to the President. Indeed, we could verify the President’s age by examining evidence such as the year recorded on his birth certificate. What we could not account for are the motives, thoughts, and attitudes of the imagined assassin. Hence, it is appropriate to say, “shot dead, senselessly,” rather than, “senseless age of 83.” Brokaw’s inappropriate insertion of “senseless” upon the producer’s request plays as a joke about language and about the “thoughtless anchor” trope, who only reads the prompter but, in some sense, does not know what they are saying. (For another salient example, see Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, “Go fuck yourself, San Diego,”)

Senselessness in the context of Carvey’s Brokaw cashes out as some feature of an event or thing that we cannot account for. It is inexplicable. It confounds us. It is senseless. Someone’s reported age is not senseless. The unlikely assassination of a former President is senseless. Let this be a stand-in definition for ‘senseless’: something for which an account cannot be given. Hopefully I have provided adequate motivation to pick up this concept and apply it. Regardless, nothing all that important turns on the definition we settle on for ‘senseless.’

My loved ones identify senselessness in my glioblastoma diagnosis. There is no known cause for glioblastoma. There is no known cure for glioblastoma. This characterizes the disease as a double whammy: no prevention and no cure; utterly senseless. Adam was diagnosed with glioblastoma at the senseless age of 34.

Fortunately, we are not doomed to senselessness. We can see our way out of it by appeal to a recurring theme on my blog: narrative medicine.

Read the following description of one responsibility of clinical practice from Arthur Kleinman, quoted in Dr. DasGupta and Dr. Charon’s article on personal illness narratives[1]: “Rather than technical adherence to any strict format of history taking, empathetic witnessing involves ‘the existential commitment to be with the sick person and to facilitate his or her building of an illness narrative that will make sense of and give value to the experience'” [emphasis added].

Kleinman’s claim, endorsed by Drs. DasGupta and Charon, prescribes that clinicians are assigned the task of helping persons under their care to construct their narratives, that is, to tell their stories, and in so doing, to find sense in the circumstances and by some measure render the experience valuable.

I floated an analysis of ‘senseless’ to be an event or thing that cannot be accounted for. If you get on board with that definition, then making sense, as Kleinman orders, of the senseless, involves giving an account for one’s circumstances. Easily done, maybe, when you pick out your own agency in a circumstance, but with so many cancers generally, and glioblastoma, particularly, there is no accounting for the disease and no role for personal agency. Personal agency features heavily in our acceptance and moving forward with the diagnosis, but causally, pre-diagnosis, there was nothing I could have done to prevent my brain cancer; this is what I mean by no role for agency. The circumstance seemingly remains senseless. Is there another interpretation on offer? I suggest an alternative.

Rather than seek meaning in the senseless, a Sisyphean task, as I have said, there is no accounting for glioblastoma, what if I were to recast the circumstances in a new way, not as Adam with brain cancer that has no cause and is thereby senseless, but let us examine the outcome, when I interpret the circumstances as Adam, the graduate-trained philosopher, nearly ten years of experience training, consulting, and facilitating organizational change management in professional settings, with a supportive family, a strong social network, and relatively unimpaired cognitive functioning relative to this stage of his disease, save for his neuro-fatigue, seizures, headaches, frequent breaks, etc. On this revised reading of my circumstances, I have done nothing to change the constants that are included in the story–I still have brain cancer; there still is no cure, but I recast the circumstances in such a way to mitigate the threat of those things for which we cannot account.

There is no accounting for glioblastoma, or my having the disease, that is all senseless, confounding, inexplicable, but there is a way to tell my story, to construct my narrative, that makes sense of things, or at least better sense of them than I possessed pre-reflectively. I repeat for emphasis: I recast the circumstances in a way that made sense, in such a manner to mitigate the threat of those constants that are senseless. We may infer from Kleinman’s direction that making sense aids the storyteller in finding value in the experience. What I have done here in a few short paragraphs that reflect my many months wrestling with my disease, is to set aside those things for which I cannot make sense. I allow the disease, and my having it, to be senseless, but as Kleinman orders, I can make sense of and find value in the experience. More accurately: I distinguished the particulars that make up the experience from the experience itself. Some facets of my experience, the cause of glioblastoma, for example, are senseless, but my illness experience is much, much greater than the diagnosis.

I penned an open letter to Senator John McCain last week, on the heels of his glioblastoma diagnosis. I received countless article comments, tweets, and emails. One email related the story of a person whose dad died from glioblastoma when this person was still a child, only 12 years old, too young to understand the complexities and difficulties of daily living with brain cancer. This person, then child, emailed to tell me that my letter of advice and support to the Senator helped this person to better understand what life was like for that person’s father. By constructing my narrative in new lights, lights seeking to shine brightly on the experience that can be made sense of, allowing the senseless particulars to remain as part of the experience, but their threat mitigated, I found value in my experience by sharing my story with others.

We find sage advice at the intersection of comedy and medicine. Unsurprisingly. These both are unique expressions of humanity. Comedy and medicine are experiences far greater than the particulars that make them up.

Clinicians and professionals aid a person in crafting their narrative with the purpose of distinguishing those things for which we cannot account from the experience itself, when performed successfully, sense can be made of the senseless, and value can be found in the experience, even an illness experience, but just like comedy, we get better with practice.


[1] DasGupta, Sayantani, and Rita Charon. “Personal illness narratives: using reflective writing to teach empathy.” Academic Medicine 79, no. 4 (2004): 351-356.

Grieving the Life that Is Not; Accepting What Could Be

In this post I examine my deep sadness, and I find it grounded in the notion that I grieve the life that is not: not the life that I live now, but the life that could have been, if I pursued another path, but did not, and so I grieve the loss of that life that is not; not what is, but what could be. Grieving has manifested with great sadness, but by the end of this post I find my way toward new possibilities grounded in acceptance.

On its face, one would think grieving a devastating medical diagnosis (c71.3) would manifest sadness involving the future loss of one’s life that he is accustomed to living and the attendant worries about his spouse, their children, family, friends, relatives, coworkers, and so on. We fear our deaths, and we fear how others will fare after our passing, and so it is reasonable to guess that we grieve the loss of our actual lives, as they exist today. This is grieving the life that is.

Surprisingly, I grieve the loss of my life as it could be, what I have called, the life that is not. I grieve the many possible lives that could be mine, or could have been, but now fold under the faculty of imagination. I stand only to lose the life that I lead today. Most generously, the life I could live in five or six years time, which significantly limits the range of possibilities that once were.

I acknowledge this grief is self-centered, and I offer little defense of this perspective other than to gesture toward the careful end of life planning and estate documents I have prepared with my wife, the commitment I have made to my children to seek happy moments for memory-building each day–difficult as those moments are to find some days, and to remind myself and others that my motivation toward writing, speaking, and meeting with researchers, clinicians, and those in training, is to leverage my experience in service of benefitting other patients who face their own grieving for the loss of what could be, but is not.

Quantum mechanics describes a wave function. The wave function describes probable positions of theoretical constituents of a quantum system where the exact position of entities cannot be determined, or predicted, without taking a measurement. This is a very sloppy summary, but it is helpful. Stay with me.

In more plain language, by way of example, here is a picture of physics pre-quantum revolution. We could take the initial conditions of a baseball duel between pitcher and batter, accounting for pitch speed, bat speed, ball spin, pitch trajectory, initial moment of impact, and so on, using classical mechanics, a physicist may derive an accurate prediction of exit velocity, trajectory, and distance travelled of the ball leaving the bat. The physicist could say, “here is where the ball will land,” and we could find the ball actually landed in just that spot.

Classical mechanics, though fraught with some intractable problems, is elegant because the theory space between what is predicted and what is actual, is narrow. Given a complete set of initial conditions, classical mechanics could predict the past and future universe. All of it. The first grand system to unify earthly and cosmic phenomena. Think of the scope, power, and satisfaction of theoreticians working in this domain! Little in a classical system is left to uncertainty. The world is determined.

In the quantum system, we no longer have bats and balls. There are instead theoretical entities such as electrons, which are very little like a ball as we conceive of the term, but are “smudges” in spacetime that can never be fully accounted for. The physicist instead accounts for the electron’s position by way of a wave function, a mathematical prediction of the many possible locations of an electron. A measurement can be taken to more accurately define the position of the electron; once the measurement is taken, the wave function, the description of possible locations, ‘collapses.’ The quantum system is uncertain, its theoretical picture of the world is unverifiable, if we take verification to be something we “see” with our eyes, and not merely detection by computerized instruments. Einstein famously resisted adoption of the quantum world finding it to be too indeterminate.

My life no longer resides in the determinate world of classical mechanics. I am an uncertain entity defined by statistical possibilities.

I grieve the approaching collapse of my wave function.

I accompany Whitney to work each Wednesday. She treats patients admitted to the hospital. I sit outside of the Starbucks, drinking coffee, reading, and writing. This is my favorite activity because it places me in the presence of surgeons, oncologists, internal medicine physicians, radiologists, nurses, therapists, and medical students.

I eavesdrop on conversations about rounds and residents. I discern what the med students are studying by listening closely to their peer-to-peer flash card quizzes. I listen for terminology that I may be able to define.

On pains of extending a metaphor beyond its usefulness, I imagine a possible world where I became a surgeon to resect my tumor, not the patient. That wave function has collapsed on my present location, outside of the Starbucks, jeans and flannel shirt, not in scrubs and gowns, stethoscope tasseled around my neck, leading the cadre of residents into the operating room.

Naturally people often ask me how I am doing. “I am doing well,” I say, “I am rebounding from my last chemo round, and my energy is coming back.” Of course this is a superficial response to a superficial question, but it is how we get along in the world, interacting with others, prioritizing politeness over candor for the sake of cooperative living, and insofar as I tend toward politeness, I have few complaints with these social norms.

Though should I be candid.

I am very, very sad.

I am not sad for losing my actual life–the life that is. My wife is strong, my kids are emotionally mature, our extended families are active in our lives, our communities of support share our values, our life insurance policies, college funds, and savings accounts will not support my family indefinitely, but all will be well beyond my passing. There is sadness here, but there is also my supreme confidence that Whitney, with an army of support behind her, will see our kids through, toward successful lives, relationships, and children of their own.

When I reflect on my deep sadness, I find this feeling grounded in the loss of the life that could have been, but is not. The range of possibilities narrow more each day. I stick my nose into medical journals and pre-med text books in a naive and misguided pursuit of theories and terminology that at some future time I apply to a school of medicine. I yearn for a career in medicine. We have terrific accounts of physicians turned patient, why not patient turned physician, I wonder. To dwell more on this failing and naive hope for the future is to further exaggerate the life that is not, proportional, if not causally connected, to my deep sadness. The determinate and certain classical world is now overthrown by the uncertain predictions of statistical probabilities.

Friends, as I take myself to be in the presence of narrowing possibilities, sitting outside of the hospital Starbucks, know that I am pressing myself to learn more, to work harder, to meet more clinicians, to schedule more speaking events. Grieving is a process toward acceptance, and acceptance of a current state is a measurement taken. With new data in hand, perhaps it is time to revise my initial conditions and be open to a refreshed range of possibilities that exist in this new reality of not what is, but instead, what could be.

A Declaration (Classification) of (Modified) Independence

Tonight I was crushed at freeze tag by a pre-teen, two children, and a peer. I mean crushed. My five and half year old was unfreezing me as needed, and when I was “it,” my three year old was my only active target. I had the head drop to juke left, but no spring off my left foot to jolt back right. I tried to spin away from an incoming freeze tag, and I aimlessly hopped on my strong right foot, down our slightly declining back yard.

I declared victory, anyway.

Not because my house, my rules.

No. Instead–well, if you have heard me speak in the past several months, refining and sharpening my illness narrative, you know the climax of my awake craniotomy and surgical resection to debulk a 71mm primary brain tumor included the adjudication of a life-altering decision to either press on with aggressive surgery at the risk of left-sided paralysis, or remain conservative, protecting sensory motor function with impairment, leaving remaining tumor in the margins of my surgical cavity.  I decided to pursue a more conservative resection, on grounds of my young family–three boys under five years old, and our (necessarily) active lifestyle. This decision was made while on the operating table, skull opened, my inner emotional and physical life exposed, if there is a distinction to be made.

Tonight I tossed my cane aside. I ran (I mean, sort of ran. Ran-ish) with my boys, their cousins, my brother in law. My awkward gait pounded my feet into the hard summer soil of an Indiana summer through the flat soles of the Sambas I used to wear for ollies and standing for hours at local concerts (“shows”).

My neurosurgeon told me to make my decision based on my quality of life today, not what I imagine could be the case in the future. My decision ultimately was to maintain what function I had left after a huge tumor smashed my right ventricle, motor sensory cortex, and post-central gyrus. I took this bet to leave cancer in my head and rolled the dice for research oncology to save my life while I hobbled after my boys outside during the slowest-paced game of freeze tag that’s ever been played.

Anyway, it’s July 4th, and that is my declaration of independence. My quality of life is better for it–shorter maybe, but for tonight, anyway, better.