Whitesburg KY

What’s in the air?



I can’t remember exactly when the shift took place, when every conversation with an old friend started including references to illness, to who was sick in their family or mine, or among our friends, and to how this could be happening so often, so young, so severely. But I’m still not used to it, and lately it has started to make me angry.

That’s how I felt the other night when I hung up from an old college roommate, relieved to hear she was cancer-free now for four years, but deeply saddened to hear about her wonderful brother, who had to step down from his pulpit because of the too-fast ravages of Parkinson’s – a disease we used to think attacked the old but increasingly seems to be striking those who are barely middle-aged.

My friend is from Long Island – the breast cancer cluster capital – and she now lives in New Jersey, which is a cluster in its own right, as those who have criticized the activism of the Long Island women point out, as if that makes the Long Island figures somehow more tolerable.

Parkinson’s in your 40s and 50s? And autism skyrocketing to the point that pediatricians are now being told to screen everyone for it, to the point that it seems everyone I know knows someone whose baby has just been diagnosed?

Where is Carol Browner when we need her?

If you don’t remember, Browner was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton years, a woman who was vitally concerned about the possible connections between environmental pollutants and illness. Today, EPA is more interested in the costs of overregulation and their impact on business. It’s a different perspective.

There’s also a different perspective toward basic research, particularly if anyone in the antichoice community can find a way to tie it to abortion. The promise of embryonic stem cell research has been largely on hold for almost eight years while this administration has played its conservative politics to trump the potential of science.

Sometimes it’s hard to put a face on global warming, other than Al Gore’s. It’s hard to be filled with passion or outrage about what might happen to the world when none of us here now will be alive. Yes, we owe it to our grandchildren’s children to care, but when you’re struggling to do right by the children and grandchildren you have right now, theirs are hard to contemplate.

But it’s not hard to give a face to the sick children we all know; to all our sick friends and relatives; to baby boomers fighting diseases we somehow expected to be worried about our parents getting, not the other way around.

I wrote a recommendation this year for a teenager who’s been fighting melanoma since she was 15. Prolonged sun exposure can obviously cause mela- noma, but I would have thought a 15-year-old hasn’t been alive long enough, much less been sun bathing long enough, to qualify as “prolonged.” I used to think lung cancer was something only smokers and ex-smokers needed to worry about, but not so. Last week, I lost another old friend, a non-smoker. “Why?” I asked the friend who brought me the news. “Oh, you know,” he replied. “It must be something in the environment.”

It’s the same comment my breast surgeon made to me some years ago when I went to him for the first time with a suspicious lump that thankfully turned out to be benign. He didn’t know me, or what I’d been doing for a living for most of my life. When I asked him if I wasn’t a little young to be worrying about breast cancer, he asked me if I knew anything about politics. A little, I responded. In that case, he suggested, maybe I should ask my colleagues why his days were increasingly spent treating young women for a disease many of us thought was a risk to be faced later.

As a doctor, he felt helpless. “We need political leadership,” he told me.

We still do. ©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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