The first magazine I remember enjoying as a child was Reader’s Digest, a family-friendly staple in American middle-class households of the 1960s. The articles were short and accessible. Whole sections of each issue were devoted to jokes: “Life in These United States,” “Humor in Uniform,” “All in a Day’s Work.” But my favorite parts of the magazine were stories about people who triumphed over little-known medical conditions. Helen C., at age 41, thought her family of five was complete until she began gaining weight and her doctor told her she was expecting a baby—which in the end turned out to be not a baby but a rare tumor the size of a cat. … Ralph G. had always been an upstanding family man until at age 37 he began neglecting his personal hygiene and gambling away the rent money—which in the end turned out to be symptomatic of a rare neurological disorder.
Sometimes I recall my younger self devouring Reader’s Digest while I’m working on story ideas for Vanderbilt Magazine. Vanderbilt researchers offer limitless fodder for anyone with a bent toward strange and obscure medical knowledge, and over the years I’ve absorbed just enough to annoy my friends. Your nephew has an insatiable appetite? It could be Prader-Willi syndrome. Your brother-in-law exudes a fishy odor? Maybe his body can’t produce monooxygenase 3.
In this issue, however, we turn to a disease that is anything but rare—cancer. Dr. David Johnson, deputy director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and himself a cancer survivor, often asks people he meets, “What’s your cancer story?” Everyone, Johnson maintains, has a cancer story.
I am no exception. My maternal grandmother and five of her siblings died of various cancers—the first in her mid-50s, the last at age 88. My mother has lost two siblings to cancer, and her surviving brother is in treatment for colon cancer. Last year two of my maternal cousins in their 50s lost their youngest sister to breast cancer; now they are both battling the disease. Cancer has become more relevant to me than it was 12 years ago when I wrote a feature story about the subject for Vanderbilt Magazine. The options for treatment have progressed greatly since then, but cancer still holds many medical mysteries.
If, after reading our cancer article or Mark Abkowitz’s story about disasters and risk management, you’re ready for something lighter, turn to page 70 and read Christopher Baltz’s account of growing up the youngest of 12 children. Think of Chris—for whom Thanksgiving may mean sweating over a deep fryer as he cooks up turkeys for 40 relatives in his garage—while you’re dragging out the folding chairs for your own holiday feast. And eat some cranberries. I read somewhere they are a source of polyphenol antioxidants, which may function as anti-cancer agents.
© 2013 Vanderbilt University | Illustrations: Loel Barr
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