Between You and Me: Rectal cancer likely cured but too late for...

Between You and Me: Rectal cancer likely cured but too late for my father

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Medical scientists released fantastic news Sunday that made me think of my father and weep. In a small trial of 18 patients with rectal cancer, who took a particular drug, the cancer totally vanished. My dad died of rectal cancer in 1975.

Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr of Memorial Sloan Cancer Center was an author of the paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine explaining the results, according to The New York Times. He said he knew of no other study in which a treatment completely obliterated a cancer in every patient.

“I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” the NYT quotes Diaz as saying. The trial was sponsored by the drug company GlaxoSmithKline. My dad and all these other patients faced chemotherapy, radiation and surgery with possible colostomy bags as treatment for their cancer. Unlike my dad, with the benefit of the new drug, dostarlimab, 47 years later, they all seem to be cured, although only time will tell. So far, it has been three years. And none of the patients had “clinically significant complications.” The medicine was taken every three weeks for six months and cost $11,000 per dose.

“It unmasks cancer cells, allowing the immune system to identify and destroy them,” according to the NYT.

I guess we are thinking of our dads this month in particular since Father’s Day is coming quickly, and we need a gift for the occasion. This incredible breakthrough seems like the ultimate present for any fathers suffering from this disease, and of course for anyone else, too. But it has come too late for my adored dad.

My father, born in 1904, came to the City from the family’s Catskill dairy farm when he was 13. One of 9 children, “the middle child,” he would like to distinguish himself by saying he was sent off by his father to build his life since he was now considered an adult. He liked to tell us stories about his total ignorance of urban life.

A favorite concerned the boarding house in which he first rented a room. It was in a brownstone a block away from where his next older brother lived in Brooklyn. He had only shortly before arrived, had dutifully sat down to write a letter home explaining his new circumstances and had gone out as instructed by his landlady to mail the letter in the mailbox on the corner. Deed done, he turned around to return, only to discover that each building looked the same. He had no idea which held his room. Ultimately someone came out to find him.

He quickly found a job delivering packages to various parts of the city. But that proved a puzzle. He had a map and was able to figure out his destination for each delivery. He rode the buses so as not to lose his sense of navigation. But he could not understand why one time the bus would go where he wanted but other times would turn off and head in a different direction. So to be sure of winding up where he needed to go, he ran. He ran all over the city until he was fired. He was deemed to be too slow.

Another early instance of having arrived in an alien world happened when he followed his brother into a tiny room in a tall building. Surprised when the doors slid closed behind, he could feel the floor drop beneath his feet. Bending into a crouch, he prepared to cushion the shock of the landing when he realized the others in the space were staring at him. He was in his first encounter with an elevator.

Of course, he was the constant victim of teasing in the next office in which he worked. He still remembered when the office manager gave him a folder to bring to the stationery store down the block. Wise now, he retorted, “I’m surprised you would try to trick me, Miss Murphy. I know every store is stationary.”

My dad went on to become a successful businessman in Manhattan. But that’s a story for a different day.

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