When, on three Wednesdays out of four, I go to the Knight Cancer Institute at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) for my weekly chemotherapy infusion, the view from my chair is this: (Photo credit: Kristian Foden-Vencil-OPB)
On those days, I'm in the building to the right in this photo overlooking the construction project.
This new, state-of-the-art research facility exists thanks to Nike founder Phil Knight. In 2013, he and his wife pledged half a billion dollars to OHSU to fight cancer and to keep OHSU people like Brian Druker, the scientist who discovered the power of the cancer drug Gleevec, around to continue their research.
But, said Knight, he would do this only if OHSU could match the donation. Half a billion is a lot of money.
In what to me seems a lot like some kind of miracle, OHSU topped the goal. As the Kuni Foundation announced in July 2015:
"Gifts came in from all parts of the community, snowballing into an unstoppable movement against cancer...Children held craft sales and collected cans, sending in shoe boxes of change. Local businesses and labor unions [banded] together sending in funds. The state of Oregon agreed to invest $200 million in OHSU facilities needed to support the building expansion."
Twenty-two months later, with a $5 million donation from the Kuni Foundation, OHSU had met Phil Knight's challenge having raised a total of $508 million. Ground was broken for the new $160 million building in June 2016 and completion is scheduled for next summer.
I know this because doctors and nurses and others at the Knight Cancer Institute have told me the story and I'll get back to that in a moment. First, some smaller things I've learned there from the caregivers at OHSU.
Following my Whipple procedure surgery for pancreatic cancer in June, I lost nearly 10 pounds. Well – I suppose some of that weight was half my pancreas, my entire gall bladder, all my duodenum and some smaller bits and pieces the surgeon removed. But most of it was a result of the surgery and recovery.
Plus – I hadn't known this before – cancer uses up more energy more quickly than a body without cancer. The same can be said for chemotherapy. A patient is expected to lose weight during treatment and therefore is encouraged to gain.
God knows I've worked at it. Before now, I spent a lifetime trying to keep off the same 10 or 15 pounds I repeatedly gained back. Even so, it was easier to lose that weight than to put it on this time.
Having at last reached my pre-surgery weight recently, I asked the RN at my chemo treatment last week if she could lay off the admonitions to gain more weight.
Apparently she thought I was kidding. She repeated the need to continue gaining to keep ahead of the chemo drugs' predilection to eat away at my weight.
Unless one is very fat, wrinkles go hand-in-hand with growing old. I don't much mind them, especially since the cancer diagnosis: something like that strongly focuses one's attention on what is really important, and wrinkles are not.
The wrinkles I've had until now came on slowly. A smile line. Increasing number of crinkles under my eyes. That sort of thing over time.
Since the surgery? Wow. I lost enough weight that overnight even my knees became wrinkled. My forearms are crepe-y. My belly is rippled with a long row of wrinkles. So is my butt. These are all new. (No, I'm not showing you photos.)
At the same time, however, it's weird that my waist is bigger than before. It bulges out and that brings me back to what the nurse told me.
Most of the weight I have gained is and will continue to be "unfortunately, fat," not muscle. That's just the way it is in this circumstance, she said.
My whole body has gone soft since I hadn't been able to work out for a long time following the surgery. I finally got back to my morning exercise routine two weeks ago and I'm determined to replace some of the lost muscle. We'll see, we'll see.
I've been smoking weed since high school but not much in recent years because it makes me cough. The state of Oregon has allowed sale of medical marijuana for quite a while and about two years ago, they expanded to allow sale of recreational weed.
Still, as curious as I am about retail versus illegal sale, I haven't gotten around to visiting a dispensary yet. So at my chemo visit to OHSU last week, when I told the doctor that sleep is a sometime thing for me, instead of a prescription drug, I was surprised when he suggested cannabis, particularly CBD which is, apparently, the part of cannabis that, unlike THC, doesn't get you high.
"What fun is that?" I asked him and we both laughed at how strange it still sounds to hear weed recommended by a doctor.
He explained that CBD is an anti-inflammatory and has a calming effect too that could help me sleep.
Is it as weird to you as it is to me to hear a physician recommend weed? I know that Oregon doctors have issued medical marijuana cards to patients for many years but it still felt odd when it happened to me.
Getting back to this, a couple of weeks ago, I posted a list of the many things that, even with a diagnosis as frightening as pancreatic cancer, I am grateful for. There is another I didn't mention then.
That I am being treated at the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU. My surgeon is one of the world's leading pancreatic cancer researchers and now, with Phil Knight's donation, he is assured of continued resources.
As Nature reported, Brian Druker, who is now director of the Knight Cancer Institute,
"...aims to rapidly hire up to 30 principal investigators, and to provide researchers with a funding cushion intended to free them from the burden of constantly applying for grants...
"The institute will focus on detecting cancers early in their development, when treatments generally have a better chance of success. Druker also wants the institute to take advantage of emerging technologies to develop better tests that would reduce false diagnoses."
Just last week, the Institute hired
"Dr. Gordon B. Mills to lead precision oncology for the hospital. He will be charged with working with his team to try to figure out what combination of drugs is most effective on different kinds of tumors. And he told KXL that he can’t wait to get started in Portland, 'The opportunity to do this at a center that is innovative, flexible, and is really wanting to make a difference, is the reason why I came to Portland.'"
Toward the end of last year, the first time I visited a doctor at OHSU, I felt a sense of pride and dedication from every person I dealt with that wasn't present or, at least, not as apparent with other physicians I've known as it is at OHSU.
I can't help but think all that energy comes from knowing they are part of something big, something special they have been part of creating and know that it took so many other people who believed it them and their goals to donate all that money to make this new research facility possible.
It also helps explain why from the start all these people have made me feel safe in their hands.