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June 2003 Volume 5, Issue 6:
Life Lessons from a Politician
By Dan Bammes
In the rotunda of the Salt Lake City courthouse, a life-size bronze statue of Governor Scott Matheson comes striding out to meet you, its hand extended. It captures the energy Scott Matheson had in life. He was an extraordinary man.

This issue of Myeloma Today is sponsored in part by an unrestricted educational grant from Novartis Pharmaceuticals.

Salt Lake City has a beautiful new courthouse across from City Hall on State Street. It's named for a former governor, Scott M. Matheson. In the rotunda of the courthouse, a life-size bronze statue of Governor Matheson comes striding out to meet you, its hand extended. It captures the energy Scott Matheson had in life. He was an extraordinary man.

Scott Matheson

Scott Matheson died at the age of 61 from multiple myeloma. In the 1950's, when he worked as a local prosecutor in the town of Parowan in southern Utah, he used to go out with friends early in the morning to watch the flash from atomic bomb tests more than a hundred miles away in Nevada. Like most people in that era, he didn't think much about the fallout that spread from the test site across the West, and in fact, across the country. Today, there's enough association between multiple myeloma and fallout exposure to include it on the list of diseases for which compensation is available from the federal government under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Matheson's family believes it was the cause of his cancer.

It may have been for me as well, though it's difficult to know for sure. I used to spend part of every summer at my grandmother's home in Kanab, just north of the Arizona state line. It's likely I was exposed to fallout from the Sedan test in 1962, possibly the dirtiest nuclear weapons explosion in the history of the program. I was six years old.

In January 2003, I was home with a respiratory infection when I felt a severe pain in my chest after a hard coughing spell. The next day I went to the doctor, who took an x-ray, and found a spot he was worried about. Three weeks of follow-up diagnostics later, I was told I had multiple myeloma. A plasmacytoma on my 6th rib had caused a pathological fracture. Without that, I might not have been diagnosed until the disease was in a much more advanced stage. As it is, I'm in Stage I.

I've been through radiation treatments for the plasmacytoma and I'm now getting thalidomide and dexamethasone. Eventually, I'll enter the University of Utah hospital for a stem cell transplant. While friends, including some other myeloma patients, tell me this will just be a "speed bump" in my life, I have more concern than that, though I've tried not to worry too much about problems that I don't have yet.

Remarkably, having cancer has been among the more positive experiences in my life. I've discovered so many people who really mean it when they ask if there's "anything I can do." That includes a member of a neighborhood church who helps me with my yard (the broken rib is still healing) and a very understanding employer at KUER, the public radio station at the University of Utah (www.kuer.org). My employment comes with excellent medical insurance, and I'm a five-minute walk from the Huntsman Cancer Institute, where I'm getting state-of-the-art medical care. My family has been enormously supportive.

I have to say my religious position has also been a help. I am Buddhist, and having cancer brought to mind a teaching called the Kosala Sutta, in which the Buddha teaches a king whose wife has just died that it is futile to hope that something subject to illness and death, such as ourselves, will not get sick or will not die. To me, it seems a far more realistic position than hoping for a cure through faith. To accept what is seems far more compassionate than to wish for some nebulous maybe.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge I'm facing now is "getting over it." In the three months since my diagnosis, multiple myeloma has dominated my consciousness in a way few other things have. I need to find a way to live with this as a chronic disease, part of my life but not the center of my attention. It seems a given that the cancer will progress, even if my doctors are doing all they can. In the meantime, every day is a precious opportunity for mindful attention to everything from spring violets to the Dixie Chicks.

Scott Matheson was a thoughtful, decent man, a smart politician who spoke often about "good public policy." Utah is far better off for his leadership, though perhaps poorer because he chose not to run for a third term. When he passed away, a newspaper editorial proclaimed him "too young." I disagree. He left us at a time when we could remember his energy and commitment. He was and is an excellent role model, and his example is just one more reason why it seems pointless to feel sorry for myself.

Dan Bammes chronicles his experience with multiple myeloma on his weblog at http://www.mustard.com/myeloma.htm.

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