With Cancer, Forgetting the Stakes Becomes Its Own Disease

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The New York Times.

My grandfather received a diagnosis of brain cancer a week before I had to hand in my master’s thesis. The very first chapter discussed a scientific paper about his type of brain tumor. I found comfort in losing myself in the work: I sat by his hospital bed as he slept, and analyzed cancer data, typing out equations filled with Greek symbols that he had joked were some kind of sorcery.

When he woke, I presented him with a copy of the thesis; the dedication began, “To my grandfather, who says the math in this thesis is black magic.” My grandmother, a former scientific editor, alternated between feeding my grandfather matzo ball soup and critiquing the language in the thesis; “data,” she said, should be plural.

“I agree with your grandmother,” my grandfather said from his bed.

“Plural sounds pretentious,” I told them.

At least, I thought, I was working on something that would help him. But the night after I visited him in the hospital, I reread the brain cancer paper referred to in my thesis and felt despair.

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