Since I was diagnosed with cancer, I've done a great amount of thinking. Maybe that's part of the process, or maybe it's just that I live mostly in my head. A couple of weeks ago, while I was sitting in my office at Germ Central Elementary School, I started thinking about white blood cells. For those who forgot to read that chapter in Biology, white blood cells are the body's way of defending us against the many microscopic organisms that we encounter over our lifetimes.
When I explained the immune system to my son, I used an analogy from the Lord of the Rings movies. I explained that the Orcs were bacteria and the Uruk-Hai are viruses, and that these creatures would randomly show up and attack the wall at Helms Deep/our bodies. Most of the time, the wall would stand and the Orcs would go home. Other times, those darn armies would figure out a way to blow up the wall and the Orcs would get in, and that's when we get sick. Our white blood cells are engaging in combat with the Orcs in a battle to get us well again, I told my son. Eomer and the White Blood Cell brigade charge over the hill with Gandalf, drive the Orcs into Fangborn Forest, the trees eat them, and my child will be really confused when he actually takes Biology.
But what if all of the soldiers at Helms Deep were killed off by the Orcs instead? That's essentially what is about to happen when I start chemo in January. This depressed me for some reason. If all of my white blood cells were going to be annihilated by the chemo, would that mean that I would lose all of my acquired immunity? I've been exposed to a huge variety of random illnesses in my lifetime. Would I have to go through every single awful virus and random bacterial infection all over again, just to regain the level of immunity that I have now?
I wasn't trying to psych myself out, to make myself hysterical. I have cancer, and knowledge is power as far as I am concerned. Part of the treatment for cancer, however, involves killing off the very things that keep me protected from all of the other microscopic creatures out there. Intellectually I know that this is how it just has to be, but this particular question on this particular day bothered me. I started obsessing.
Normally I don't ask doctors these sorts of questions. Mostly I just stew in my own anxieties until I get distracted by a shiny object. On this particular day, however, I found myself blurting my freak outs about my poor white blood cells during a post surgical visit. My doctor did not laugh, to his credit. I imagine he gets lots of freaked out patients on a regular basis.
He explained that white blood cells, however many there happen to be, where ever they happen to be, seem to remember what they've encountered before. That memory is passed on to new white blood cells as they are formed. As long as my bone marrow isn't affected, those memories will be passed on. I felt much better after that. The cells that make up my body remember, a collective unconscious at the cellular level. I start chemotherapy tomorrow, and I'm a little terrified. It's strangely comforting, however, the idea that we retain at least some of the memories of a lifetime within the very cells that make up who we are.
Even if some of those memories involve barfing and other nastiness.