By Michael J. Katin, MD
We have now reached the end of the first full month of the Bush Administration
and our new President has already adressed a joint session of Congress and
it is disappointing to note that the topic of Radiation Oncology has again
been totally ignored in favor of tax cuts, Iraq, and even the Marc
Rich pardon. We may finally have to recognize that the vast majority
of the world doesn't give a rat's rump about what we do or what we think.
Two of the top stories from this month can help us to focus on the relative
insignificance of what we do. First, if we start to get confident that we're
actually making a dent in relieving human suffering, keep in mind that 1,100
people were killed in the recent earthquakes in El Salvador. That instantly
overwhelms the number of people you have saved with radiation therapy. In
fact, it may outnumber the people saved by any university department over
the course of several years. And of course over one year there are more
earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters than
there are university departments, even counting those that aren't ACR or
Second, we are still suffering the aftershocks over the death of Dale
Earnhardt, Sr. His accomplishments are too numerous to mention. He finished
in the top 10 in Winston Cup points for twenty years. How much do we as
oncologists owe to someone who contributed so much to keeping the name of
a cigarette in the public consciousness? But the main point of my mentioning
his tragic death is that one could be the greatest radiation oncologist
in the history of our specialty, producing technical advances, publishing
hundreds of papers, and training dozens of practitioners, and possibly,
after all this, get an obituary
of less than one column in the newspaper. Dale Earnhardt already has entire
books about him available at supermarket check-out areas and convenience
stores. Should that give us humility, or what?
But just to get a positive result from this tragic event, we should reflect that his death was not unexpected. He made his living driving cars at excessive speed in competitive situations, and was it such a mystery that he should eventually have been impacted by this? And when we get overly sensitive about producing side-effects from our treatment, we need to remember that the purpose of irradiation is to kill cells. Is it a mystery that innocent cells get damaged as well? Of course not. Or are we such proponents of ploidism that we feel that aneuploid cells are not deserving of survival and should be killed by the beam, whereas diploid cells should by divine right be spared of any consequences? No, that just couldn't happen. So Dale Earnhardt was just doing his job as best as he knew and had to obey the laws of physics just like any rookie. And the next time we get criticized for producing mucositis or dermatitis or any other -itis, just think about what Dale Earnhardt told us: "Get the hell out of the race car if you've got feathers on your legs or butt. Put a kerosense rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up there and eat that candy ass."
I tried to put that on our letterhead but my associates took it off again. I'll try again after I get it translated into Latin.