As Old As Dirt And Here to Stay

With the history of cancer dating back to Before Christ (BC), one might ask, “Where is the hope for a cure?”  If we had access to a gallery of survivors, their faces would surely emulate the answer.  One week, one year, five years, ten years … such markers of survivorship provide inner whispers of hope.  For millions in remission, it comes after rounds with chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and holistic measures.  Patients speak of visible and invisible ripples inherent in the journey to survivorship.  Hope beams through like sunshine for those who get to hear “it is okay to breathe and seize the days to come.”  The number of survivors is expected to reach 20.3 million worldwide by the year 2026, according to The National Cancer Institute.

CURE.  A word akin to water for the thirsty.  NED is as close to the word cure as any doctor may ever speak.  It falls upon one’s ears like music for the soul. No Evidence of Disease — NED! The cancer appears to have been conquered.  Taking into account the different types and sub-types, there are hundreds of cancers to be conquered, demanding of emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual fortitude.  Day by day, people are being equipped with existing and new tools to fight against cancer.   

The earliest case of leukemia dates back to 5000 BC.  “In 2015, researchers found what is believed to be the oldest known case of cancer in humans.  The cancer, leukemia, was identified in the skeletal remains of a woman who lived near present-day Stuttgart-Mühlhausen (Germany),” notes Cancer Quest.  Considering where we are today, you might say cancer is as old as dirt and here to stay. The word CURE remains elusive.  I recently lost a 44-year-old cousin to multiple myloma; once again it left a bitter taste of how far we have to go in the ongoing battle.  Walter’s death was a stark reminder of cancer’s persistence to stay parked in our world. Yet, I remain grateful for the researchers who care enough to keep on digging. I know many who have survived thanks to that kind of persistence.

When Dr. Oz revealed his mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, it came with a heavy dose of self deprecation.  He asked himself, “How I could have missed it for so long?  Why didn’t I recognize the [subtle] signs?”  He humbly confessed, “When my mom’s stubbornness increased, I simply blamed it on her getting older.” 

As with cancer found too late, Alzheimer’s comes upon families like a thief in the night that stalked them for years before fully invading. Its untreatable nature (at every stage) brings a profound sense of unmistakable loss. 

Maryann Makekau

An estimated 5 million families are coping with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, all of whom can empathize with Dr. Oz in his sense of helplessness.  Hearing his struggles brings back memories of my own mother’s battle. Fourteen years later (+ the 2.5 years since her death) we still revisit what we experienced and what we now know, creating a powerful “what if” memory care prescription of our own. It takes an army of care to reach the other side.

For a time, my mother was as painfully aware as I was of Alzheimer’s increasing strong grip.  “Why can’t I get my hand to work?  I can’t write like I used to.  My brain doesn’t feel right … I can’t describe it, but it just doesn’t feel right,” she’d say (over and over) with a pained look on her face.  Her love of writing poetry became my love of reading it aloud, when Alzheimer’s stole her ability to write and (later) speak.  She continued to mouth the words for a time; I still treasure the connection in those moments.  As the losses piled on, anxiety riddled her with panic and fear.  Changing the subject (distraction!) and the medicine in music (sing!) were more powerful than any pill.  I prayed very hard prayers to spare her the torment of knowing her mind was literally fading into an abyss.  “Dear Lord please help her forget these things she cannot do.  Help me guide her in this child-like innocence,” I begged.

My family was grasping for tools to cope with the unstoppable.  When Your Grandma Forgets became an invaluable resource, lessons in living by my own words.  Creating a dementia friendly community through events like “neighborhood memory cafes” and Prom for Seniors became celebratory ways to help my community see aging through a different lens.  Carrying hope into a devastating illness is a powerful force with inner whispers of, “It is okay to breathe.”  Dwell in the moment or you will drown.  You must grieve what is lost as you go, but you must also keep moving. 

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance

Staying afloat in a sea of forgetfulness means moving, doing, and loving, every day, moment by moment.  Gary Joseph LeBlanc wrote about the triumphs and hardships with his father, in common sense “caregiver” language, portraying their 3000-day journey.  LeBlanc shone hope in the seemingly impossible; he chose to be always faithful even when Alzheimer’s appeared to have the upper hand.  

Like cancer, Alzheimer’s is as old as dirt and still here!  But there is one very important distinction — there are NO survivors. 

September is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.  People are talking about it, creating public events, and coming alongside those living through it.  Alarms are sounding and voices are being heard yet progress is seriously lacking.  The National Institute on Aging notes that 110 years have passed since “Dr. Alois Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles).”

There will be an estimated 15 million people living with Alzheimer’s by the year 2060.  We must strive to give them dignity, hope and a voice, today.  Given the estimated 7000 years of cancer history laced with successful as well as failed treatments, I foresee a day when Alzheimer’s disease will mirror the disease of cancer.  Interestingly, the same tips for avoiding cancer are now touted for averting Alzheimer’s.  According to Dr. Oz, there are three things to help you delay onset:

  1. If you look down and see your belly, your brain is shrinking; big belly = small brain.  Reduce your waist size. 
  2. Engage in regimented and rigorous activity; a high intensity workout.
  3. Regular meditation and prayer exercise your brain in a different way; you can build new connections between the synapses in the brain.

Imagine the day when XX number of people survive, when Alzheimer’s is transformed by treatments that can stop it in its tracks.  My prayers are concentrated on that kind of huge outcome, along with doing things today to help families navigate the course.  Music and The Arts are two plug-ins showing promise to reduce agitation, ease anxiety, and enhance connection (in recent studies).  To Dr. Oz and every other care-partner facing Alzheimer’s, please hang onto hope for those who can no longer hold it for themselves.  Empower them with choices (no matter how simple), help them participate in their own care (slow but capable), show them something marvelous (go play outside), and reach for the heart (deep inside is the person you’ve always known).  We cannot erase the disease but we can ease the journey by what we choose to do.  

Mom and I enjoying the beach (2015).

Like cancer warriors, dementia warriors are becoming a powerful force, driving ahead with inner whispers of, “it is okay to breathe.” This disease may be old as dirt, but we can find a way to bury its lethal weapons.  Together, we can equip tomorrow’s generation of caregivers with unwavering hope!

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