My life in cancer work

Cambridge-38, by Alessandro Grussu on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons
Cambridge-38, by Alessandro Grussu on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

As I’ve mentioned here before, I don’t have a lot of experience with cancer. I am the first one in my immediate family to get it. We have known people with cancer, but my experience with it was not at the closest range. We experienced grief from losing loved friends – including one of my dad’s oldest friends, to one of the most evil of them all, pancreatic cancer. We have mourned cancer losses.

More recently, I have happily celebrated cancer successes. I have friends who have survived! But I wasn’t with them at their bedsides as they struggled. We weren’t that close. They didn’t live nearby. I was a donation friend, a supportive comments on Facebook friend, a make a mix of good tunes for the hospital friend. That’s about all I did.

The most extensive time I ever spent engaged at all with the concept of cancer in any way was when I had a job, over the course of several summers and holiday breaks, at the National Cancer Institute, in Bethesda, MD, in the early 1990s. It started as a temp job. A clerk-typist job (later relabeled “office automation” to sound more up-to-date). As I approached college graduation, they got the wrong idea and started talking about sending me to medical terminology courses.

I was not working in a lab. I was on an administrative floor, just down the hall from the Director. My boss, Dr. S., was a Deputy Director. She was very nice (and she, too, now, is gone, from cancer). She was classy and mysterious and I learned she had lost her husband in a sudden and wrenching way while they’d been on vacation somewhere nice. She had a weekly hair appointment. She was a scientist Katherine Hepburn. I barely had any work to do for her. I think she kept her own calendar. And how could she depend on me, really, if I only showed up in the summers and around Christmas? I answered phones, and probably typed stuff (I typed really fast). But my main job was to get up from my desk and walk over to the computer table and log in and out of a tracking system scientific papers written by scientists in the labs, which Dr. S. needed to approve before they were submitted for publication.

In order to log these in, I had to read the titles. And some of the titles scared the shit out of me, at first. Incidence of cancer among broccoli eaters in Japan, was one common theme. A lot of these papers were out of epidemiology, and if you’d bother to skip ahead to the end, you’d see the good news: There was none! Still, there were enough scary-sounding studies to bring this song constantly to mind. I did learn good lessons, though, on reading scientific papers intelligently. Many media outlets today still have not learned these lessons. So for that alone I was grateful for the drudgery. I learned how not to let science scare the shit out of you for no reason, especially if you weren’t actually going to be doing any science yourself. For about five minutes, I got excited about epidemiology, because I saw the CV of one of the epidemiologists and saw she had done undergrad in Art History. I wasn’t going to ever be good at the math, though…

Boy, it sure sounds like a sleepy office. Let me introduce you to my office mates. There were two other secretaries, so our desks were arranged in a C shape. One, B, was more pleasant to talk to, although she did like to talk too much. I will never forget her malapropism when discussing her proclivity for watching Tarzan movies in bed on weekend mornings. She said it was one of her “childless wimps.” She was the secretary for the bon vivant Dr H down the hall, whose job I think was to organize an annual conference. They knew how to work not too hard.

The “power” secretary in the office was P. She was petite and buttoned-up and I couldn’t stand her. Her boss was the imposing Dr A. I didn’t like him much. And there was a lot of intrigue going on in the Division while I was there. A Chicago Tribune reporter calling and harassing on the regular, eventually publishing this about it all. Which meant, yes, this guy reported to the big boss. Once, he came in for a meeting while I was at lunch, and when I got back, he was sitting at my desk. I stood there, arms folded. Finally, he looked up. “Oh, is this your desk?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. I was also there the day his deputy lab chief got sacked for taking kickbacks from big pharma. Kind of exciting and weird. Lots of phone calls, non-stop. P took them all.

My favorite day was the one that P was out sick. They had to send a senior secretary from another location to replace her because I was clearly not up to snuff. C, the replacement, was a lovely woman. I enjoyed talking with her. She was also a Jehovah’s Witness. Dr A blundered in from lunch and on his way into the office, turned to C and said, “If anyone calls, I’m not in.” C drew up to her full height and said to him, “Dr A, I am a Jehovah’s Witness, and I am forbidden to lie.” Missing zero beats, Dr A turned to me and said, “Take the phones, will you?” (Obviously, it is OK for Jews to lie.)

Where was the cancer in all this? I mean, it was the whole reason for the place. Across the street was the clinical center. I had to go over there once on an errand. On the way down in the elevator, a patient in a gown brushed against me. I came back to the office and noticed some dry blood on my arm. That was the closest I got to anything. I didn’t have any broken skin on my own arm, so no major risk. I scrubbed down and vowed I’d never get sent over there again.

It was a summer job. It earned me money for CDs and books and my semester in Italy. Now, at a remove of 20+ years, do I stop and think, THAT’S WHY YOU GOT CANCER! No. That’s preposterous. This disease is wicked random. My number came up.

Post script: I was there to attend the gala farewell luncheon when Dr A retired. Those guys don’t stay retired for long. He is, as far as the last time I checked, the medical director of a trade association representing an industry that promotes a product you could scarcely imagine a former director of a federal cancer research program stooping to do.

And it just makes me love Dr P all the more.

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