THE HISTORY AND MYSTERY OF CANCER

THE HISTORY AND MYSTERY OF CANCER
By Khevin Barnes

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Where did cancer come from? Where did it all begin? How long has it been around?

The truth is we don’t really know, but it seems to have been present in humans and other animals since the beginning of recorded history.
Fossilized tumors have been found in Egyptian mummies and the oldest written description of cancer dates back 3,000 years.

Breast cancer surgery began in 1600’s when lymph nodes were discovered to be a part of the cancer picture, and in 1857 the so called “radical mastectomy” began to catch on in England, and that became the surgical standard for 60 long years.

In 1930, the medical profession began using radiation to alter the DNA of cancerous cells and then in 1943 the first chemotherapeutic agent was introduced.

Today the National Cancer Institute lists more than 200 chemotherapy drugs that are available.

The first record of chemotherapy being used for cancer dates back to 1600 B.C. in Egypt, and consisted of a mixture of fresh dates, limestone and water that was actually injected directly into tumors.

The results of such injections have been lost over time.

But make no mistake; we’ve come a long way. So I have to wonder just how long in the future will it be before we look back at the methods and therapy’s we use today and label them as primitive and archaic?
It’s enough to make King Tut’s beard curl.

The bottom line of course is that contemporary cancer survivors have a lot of choices to make. And we owe it to ourselves to do the research and ask tons of questions; to question everything we read and hear and every bit of advice we get, backed up by every bit of evidence to support it.

And with history on our side, the mystery of cancer may one day be fully understood. Until then we have the gift of hindsight to make informed choices in our own health.

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A Cat, a can of Tuna and Cancer

By Khevin Barnes

Khevin Barnes Cat

 

In 1989 I bought my first house, where I lived with my first wife. This was also the year and time that we purchased our first cat. Her name was Sheba. She was a beautiful feline known as an ‘Abyssinian’. Genetic research suggests the breed originated in Egypt.
Whenever I opened a can of tuna for my lunch the cat would smell it no matter how far away she might be, or how deep in slumber, and she would invariably come running. I would lovingly drain the liquid from the can and reward her hunger with a small bowl of what I called. “Tuna Juice”.
This became a sort of ritual for us over the years, and just shouting out the words “Tuna Juice” was enough to entice Sheba to dash to the kitchen. My wife loved this cat and for a long time I believed that I was offering our pet a nutritious if not delicious snack. A decade hurried past us in the blink of an eye until the day my wife was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. A few years after that cancer took her from us and suddenly our little family was comprised of just two. Sheba and me.
For many months I was in a darkened world. I drove the cat to my Mother’s home and with hardly a goodbye to this loving animal that had been a large part of my life, I left her there. In the meantime I wandered about in my fog, unsure of what the future held. The cat had inadvertently become the symbol of my pain and all that had been taken from me.
My memory of this time has faded considerably, but I recall the day a friend asked me about my cat. I remarked that I had been pulled away not only from human contact and interaction by the death of my spouse, but that I had neglected Sheba as well. I mentioned my cat’s love of “Tuna Juice”. My friend was horrified not only that I did not share any of the actual fish, but that I had essentially poisoned my pet with salty water that hadn’t the slightest nutritional content.
I realized that what I thought had been a kind and loving moment, was actually an act of selfishness. I had greedily consumed the fish, leaving what would normally have gone down the drain for my cat to dispose of.
This may seem inconsequential and harmless, but to me this revelation was indicative of a much larger issue that was showing up in my life; the realization that I was capable of doing harm while actually believing I was spreading love. Where else was this affecting my life, I wondered?
The truth is, I found it everywhere. The very act of wandering aimlessly, lost in my grief and rejecting the goodness of people and friendships that were pounding at my locked heart was only adding to the pain that the death of my spouse had created in my world.
“Tuna Juice” had become the personification of my own life and the watered-down essence of the joylessness that I was experiencing.
Losing a friend to cancer is one of the hardest human encounters we can endure and something we cannot change. But losing oneself to life is curable.
I had allowed my view of humanity to fade away, replaced by the despair and suffocation of being abandoned. And worse yet, I had given my cat exactly what life had given me.
Isolation. Loneliness. Rejection.
Sheba died too, just a few years later. I would see her from time to time whenever I visited my mother, but I was never able to take her back, to give her the petting and the love and the real fish that she so richly deserved.
Cancer has a way of draining us, not so very unlike that can of Tuna. And love, it seems to me, can work that way too. We can hold back the real deal, while sharing our diluted version and believing we are doing good in the world.
Today I am remarried, happy and grateful for the lessons I see all around me. We don’t have a cat at the moment, but plan on finding one soon. And now I too am living as a cancer survivor. It’s funny how life lessons keep reappearing for us over and over. Sort of like those nine lives of a cat.
What have I learned from a cat, a can of tuna and cancer?
Don’t dilute the love you have. Don’t reject the love you’re offered. And share freely that which you value most.

 

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M R I….would rather not, thank you!

M R I …….would rather not, thank you.    (Examining my fear of tight spaces)
By Khevin Barnes

MRI FEAR
Good heavens, there are so many procedures and cancer tests for us to endure that I feel a bit silly bringing this up. But here goes. I’ve had male breast cancer for 15 months and I have yet to receive an MRI, PET scan or CAT scan. Now, I’ve been scheduled for my first MRI session in a few weeks’ time.
Sounds simple enough to me, except that I am unusually and excessively claustrophobic, based on a near drowning experience as a child. I’ve been told that I’ll be required to lie face down with my eyes and nose lowered into a small dark hole.
Once when my wife and I were visiting Mexico for our anniversary, she lovingly bought us two professional massage sessions. I’d never had one of those either. The very kind woman who was attending to us doused me with oils and potions that smelled of banana and mango, and had me lie on my stomach while pushing my head into an oval-shaped opening in the table, just large enough for my face. I immediately saw myself underwater, looking through a small diving mask with no way out. Needless to say I had what I would characterize as a real panic attack.
My wife was both amused and horrified as I explained to my masseuse in broken Spanish that none of this was her fault. I waited in the Cantina feeling a bit sheepish of course, but vowing to avoid the torture of a body massage for the rest of my neurotic days on Earth.
My Mammograms are tolerable. My ultrasounds have been uneventful. The needle biopsy was over before I knew it. And my breast surgery is but a phantom memory.
As I read about various cancers and the procedures that go with them, I should feel pretty darned lucky so far. And so I will have my MRI because I think it’s both wise and necessary. But I won’t hesitate to ask for an Ativan, and I’ll certainly rely on my years of Zen Meditation to pull me from the fear of the before and after and back into the very moment that I’m in. MRI will be an acronym for “MY RECOVERY INSURANCE”.

As a breast cancer survivor I guess this was just another one of those things I needed to “get off my chest”.
I feel better already.
Besides, I don’t believe anyone ever drowned on the 8th floor of a hospital.

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Khevin Barnes has been a full-time professional magician for 40 years.  He prefers to have his assistant’s crawl into the tight boxes on stage whenever possible…
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CANCER WILL NEVER MAKE ME FAMOUS

CANCER WILL NEVER MAKE ME FAMOUS

By Khevin Barnes

Famous2

This is a story about male breast cancer. But before I can tell it I have a confession to make.

I’ve always wanted to be famous.

When I was a twelve year old boy, I read my first book about the great escape artist and magician Harry Houdini.   Actually, his name was Eric Weiss but by changing his name he added a little more drama to his life. And that was the point after all. He wanted to stand out. And so did I.

I made a decision after reading about him, that stage magic was to be my life-long vocation. And though I did what a lot of young performers do when just starting out, which is to “borrow” the style and manner of other entertainers they admire, inside I wanted to find my own, unique way of becoming the world’s next famous magician. All entertainers are selling themselves after all. We become a commodity and our job requires that we get noticed to get hired. Famous performers on the other hand, don’t have to work so hard.

I’ve always loved my job. Along the road I’ve visited many countries, invented a few stunning stage illusions, received an Emmy Award for a short-lived television show, made a decent living and had a ball doing it until finally slowing the schedule down dramatically in 2013 when I was old enough to draw some Social Security and catch my breath. And I was lucky to perform for a few famous people along the way too.

Elizabeth Taylor. Peter o’Tool. David Copperfield. Cary Grant.

But I was never famous.

And then, just over a year ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A wizard-of-a-surgeon in Honolulu made a magical appearance I my life, put me under her compassionate spell, and when I awakened my left breast had vanished. And hopefully my cancer as well.

The odds of contracting male breast cancer are 1000 to 1. In the first days of my recovery, someone said to me, “Breast cancer in men is exceedingly rare. You’re famous! “

“Wait a minute”, I thought, “This is definitely NOT what I had in mind!”

The irony of that moment for me was as stirring as any performance I could ever hope to deliver and it revealed the important need to bring this disease of mine out into the open. I understood at once that men needed to know more about this, and women too of course.

The scarcity of male breast cancer has made it nearly invisible. And the unwanted but unique nature of my diagnosis made it mandatory that I speak up.

Invisibility is a great thing in a magic act, but very bad for the unsuspecting men who have the chance, however slight it may be, to have cancer of the breast. The truth is, according to some recent research, most men still don’t know that it’s even possible for them to have cancer in their breasts. And because of this it often goes undetected, and consequently the mortality rates are significantly higher due to the late stage in which it’s discovered.

So, after all these years, I’ve given up on being famous, and it feels alright.   When you look at the statistical studies, the chance of being a recognized movie star is 1 in 1,505,000. Your chance to win an Olympic medal is 662,000 to 1. Your chance to become President is 10,000,000 to 1.

And so it’s clear that these 1000 to 1 breast cancer odds of mine aren’t so very important after all. As someone pointed out to me recently, when you are that guy with breast cancer the odds suddenly jump to 1 in 1.  So, forget fame.   After all, what’s in a name?   Or a number?

Instead of signing autographs, I’ll just continue working at being a respectable magician, but much more importantly, my aim now is to get really good at helping myself and others in the fine art of surviving cancer.

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CANCER AND THE CRICKET………… A story of survival

Cricket.

By Khevin Barnes

Where I live in Arizona, we have an abundance of crickets. I remember from my time working in Japan that they are looked upon as welcomed guests in the house, bringing good luck to all who make their acquaintance.

I was taking my morning shower the other day when I noticed a tiny insect hopping about on the shower floor, startled by the flow of water.   I reached for my glasses since I couldn’t make out the shape, and discovered that it was a cricket.

Before moving to Arizona I was fortunate to spend a full year in residence at a Zen Buddhist Monastery known as the Palolo Diamond Sangha in Hawaii.

During that year of meditation we were taught to revere all life on Earth, from the great quadrupeds that walk the planet, to the tiniest creatures that crawl or wriggle.

For that reason we were instructed to remove any unwanted pests from our rooms or common areas, including the occasional venomous Hawaiian centipede, and release them in the tropical jungle outside.

During our evening meditation sessions those of us who wanted to visit with our master teacher for a few minutes would sit patiently outside his chambers. The mosquitos were plentiful in the moist atmosphere high above Honolulu, and it was often a challenging task to keep from swatting them as they landed on our nose or ears.

In Zen, the purpose of such a practice is to train students to fully accept whatever is happening to us at any given moment—and become aware of our habit of labeling situations as “good” or “bad”.

Eight months into our stay on the island I was diagnosed with male breast cancer and during my recovery from mastectomy surgery I was given yet another form of discomfort to sit with in addition to the flying pests.

Breast cancer delivers a variety of aches and pains, some of which still linger under my arm and in my chest more than a year after my surgery.

But this is a story about crickets.

CRICKET SURVIVOR2

My first instinct was to save the creature from plunging down the drain and so I kicked at it with my bare foot, attempting to boot him off to the side where much less water was churning. The cricket, in its intrinsic drive to survive kept hopping, and more often than not landed back in the swirl of water where he was perilously close to vanishing down the drain pipe.

At last, with some slight hope of saving him, I stopped the water and stood there, dripping wet, as the whirlpool of suds circled around at my feet, with the tiny insect spinning and bobbing in the wash.

Once the water had cleared I could see the limp form, lifeless it seemed, and most surely dead from the trauma he’d just endured.

I scooped him up, holding that soggy body tenderly and placed him on a paper towel in the bathroom.

I hoped he would survive, but I had no way of knowing.

This drive to live that we can observe in all of nature is one of the great forces of the universe, it seems to me. Our lives as cancer survivors are beaten back again and again as we’re knocked about like so many tiny insects, battling a force that seems unconquerable at times.

And yet, many of us do survive. Whether it’s decades or years or days, we fight the raging waters and lift our heads up to breathe again and again.

There is a huge variation in survival between cancer types—from 1% to 98% depending on the type and stage.

But no matter the numbers, we have an uncanny urge to keep swimming and to keep surviving. And this life force and compulsion to push on is the most impressive form of energy that I have ever witnessed.

I placed my Cricket outside in the warming sun, watching and waiting, and soon he began to wriggle those tiny legs and in a flash he was off and into the garden for another dance through life and to chirp another song.

For a moment, I remembered the tightness under my left breast and then, just as quickly, I let it go.   Like the Cricket, I had had a sudden, uncanny desire to hop about, sharing for a brief moment in this stellar tribute to the human experience—to ride out the flood, swim against the current, and to lift my head up in the dark of night–and sing.

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A Ceiling on Healing

By Khevin Barnes

Empire State

I remember my first elevator ride to the top of the Empire State building in New York many years ago. As the doors squeezed shut I was thrust into a constricted world of stainless steel and uncertainty in which I had no authority or opportunity to make that flight into the unknown any less troubling. My fate was in the hands of others. The truth is, every time we drive our cars down the street or lie prone on an operating table we submit our very lives to the actions of the world around us. We are, it seems, no longer in control.

Having survived that wild ride to the 102nd floor decades ago, I find myself engaged in yet another thrilling journey. It’s the expedition through cancer, but this time it’s a round-trip I’m looking for. The idea you see is to return safely to the very spot from which I started.

Cancer free.

As a relative newcomer in the cancer arena, I’ve become increasingly aware of another phenomenon that has crept into my own recovery plans. It’s a sort of “glass ceiling” that has appeared overhead, created by me.

Basically it works like this: In my first year as a cancer survivor, my thoughts have been about taking care of business, asking questions about what I want to accomplish in my life, getting my affairs in order, prioritizing my time and focusing on enjoying every day that I have. All of this has been based on the idea that my time might be limited. I see that this has been a great opportunity to be inspired and get some things done, but at the same time I suspect that all of this has inadvertently diminished my view of the future somewhat.

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In other words, I’ve been focusing on short-term plans and purposes in the event that my time runs out sooner than I would prefer, and in dealing with life in this mode, the future becomes murky. More importantly, some of those dreams I’ve carried for a very long time are in danger of surrendering their ability to manifest in my life.

As an example, I didn’t really start to play piano until just a few years ago. I enjoy the process of being self-taught and progressing ever-so-slowly and it’s one of those things that I might easily have cast off as impossible considering my age and the remaining years I might have to live.

Part of me says “dude, why don’t you just close the keyboard since there’s no chance you’ll ever be really good at it” while another, much wiser part seems to be screaming “Go for it! A bend in the road isn’t the end of the road”, and therein lies the dilemma.

I suspect that many of us with a life-threatening disease are pretty busy during our first months or years until one day when we are able to stop looking back over our shoulder at all we’ve been doing to stay alive, and glance ahead—perhaps a long way ahead—and grasp a piece of our future.

As for me, I hear that the tallest building in the world at this moment is in Dubai and is known as the Burj Khalifa. It has 163 floors.

I’m planning on taking an elevator to the top.

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MAGIC AND MEMORIES IN NEPAL By Khevin Barnes

Pokhara_Nepal

MAGIC AND MEMORIES IN NEPAL
By Khevin Barnes

My introduction to cancer along with the many variations and pathways through which it infiltrates our lives happened 25 years ago. It was a diagnosis of Ovarian Cancer, and it was discovered in my young wife at the time and during a period of our lives when we were fully engaged in our work, world travel, and living in our first home. It was a period when everything seemed to be going right, but cancer often has a way of slipping through the cracks of lives that are fulfilled and tranquil.

One of the highlights of our time together and certainly of our careers as stage magicians was backpacking around the world in 1989 and spending a year performing in scores of towns and villages. My wife and I carried our tent, sleeping bags and enough magic apparatus to present an hour-long show and there wasn’t a day that we didn’t look forward to donating a program to the many families we met along the way. In that year we visited more than 50 countries, but my favorite memory is of our 30 days in Nepal, hiking the one hundred mile trail known as the Annapurna Circuit. While it was unclear to us during our expedition, this was also the time and place that the first murky symptoms of advanced ovarian cancer would appear.

After obtaining our travel permits and being transported by jeep on a hair-raising drive through the steep mountain roads, many with sheer drop-offs, we arrived in the village of Pokhara. Then we set off on foot, and for the next month it would seem as though we were trekking on another planet since Nepal was very different from the world we knew. The tour was challenging, gratifying, grueling and most of all, life changing. We met wonderful people and presented magic shows in nearly every village we visited, saw some breathtaking scenery and hiked over some soaring mountain peaks. The highlight of the month-long expedition was a crossing of the Thorong-la pass. At just under 18,000 feet and not far from the border of Tibet, it’s officially the highest mountain pass in the world.

Often we would walk all day and arrive in a small village with a hundred or so people sitting in a semi-circle, waiting for the show to begin. It turned out the Sherpa’s who carried supplies from village to village, also carried news that two magicians would be arriving soon. So, no matter how many hours we walked or how tired we were, we were always happily compelled to present our program to the Nepali people the moment we entered their village. Needless to say, they treated us kindly.

The last thing on our minds at that time was our health, but as our journey unfolded we were confronted with some disturbing symptoms. Both of us had contracted a dreaded traveler’s ailment called Giardia. It’s a microscopic parasite that lives in untreated water.

In the Nepal of 1989, outhouses were often built on small bridges directly over a river. This made for instant plumbing, but for any unlucky inhabitants downstream it meant trouble. We carried water purifiers naturally, but a piece of fruit or meal of rice and lentils could easily have given us the bug.
The symptoms are great muscle weakness, diarrhea and loss of appetite. It was cleared up in me with some medication that we had brought along with us, having done the research on possible bugs that we might encounter. My wife however experienced a lingering illness. Our trip continued for another few months and when the year was over we flew home to California.

Back in the states, we had made a commitment to present a series of slide shows and lectures for some of the corporate sponsors who had helped to support our adventure and we did so with great enjoyment, but we were increasingly aware of my wife’s difficulty with digestion and appetite.

Not long after that we moved to Oregon where the magic shows continued with tours to Alaska and Washington for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, but my wife stayed home this time; her energy diminished. The digestive problems persisted and we continued to think that the parasite she had contracted in Nepal was the culprit. We had been healthy and active all our lives and had no family doctor, but with my insistence she finally agreed to see a physician in Portland. We were sent home with antibiotics and a diagnosis of “irritable bowel syndrome”.

More weeks went by until we detected that she was visibly bloated and increasingly uncomfortable. We went to see a gastro internist who collected a sample of the fluid that seemed to be causing the swelling in her abdomen.

Within 24 hours the diagnosis was received: Stage 3 Ovarian cancer.

My wife’s cancer preceded the discovery of the CA-125 blood test used today to detect ovarian cancer. Little was known about the disease, except for the serious threat it carried. We battled her cancer as a team for several years with many rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and clinical trials. In the meantime, we tried to continue our magical work with kids and families.

We were even able to present a month-long magic tour in Japan with the approval and assistance of her oncologist who ordered all of her chemotherapy medications, drip lines and medical gear so that we could take it along with us. With the help of our Japanese hosts we found a hospital willing to administer the drugs. This was to be our last opportunity to perform together. Back in Portland we got the news that her cancer had metastasized to the lining of her lungs. There were more surgeries and still more chemotherapy.

She lost the fight at the age of 47. During her illness we often talked about how lucky we were to have been able to travel the world while we were still well enough to do so. More than a few of our family members had been alarmed by our willingness to sell our home, car and belongings before embarking on our journey. We never regretted our decision to go.

Today, as the people of Nepal struggle after the devastating series of recent earthquakes, I think back on the beauty of the country and its inhabitants as we saw it more than 25 years ago. Out of all those destinations around the planet that we were lucky to visit, Nepal has always held the number one spot in my mind. Somehow the very real magic that we experienced there made the cancer journey a little easier to navigate. There is a majesty and breathtaking awareness of life on Earth that surrounds those who visit, and our time there, along with the memory of my magical partner, remains forever effervescent in my heart.
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