Sunday, March 10, 2013

Small Cancers, Big Data, and a Life Examined

"The unexamined life is not worth living."
Plato

There's no doubt that Plato was on to something. The observation, from Plato's Apology, is a recollection of the speech Socrates gave at his trial...and for all that Socrates may have lived a little before Tim Berners-Lee and knew nothing of HTML or the World Wide Web, he was nobody's fool.

Sometimes it is only by pure chance that some of us get a chance though to subject their own lives to Socratic scrutiny. In my case it arises because on this day two years ago I was operated on (successfully as it turned out) for the most lethal of all the cancers, pancreatic cancer – and if you can't scrutinize your life two years after having it salvaged by a sure-handed surgeon who succeeded 100% in resecting the tumor concerned, then when can you?

But here's the thing. In conducting my weekend scrutiny, I realized that most of my life – since my four children were all conceived (same wife, honest!) while I was relatively young – wasn't so much unexamined as unknown....to the kids, I mean. So I have decided to celebrate the two-year annivsary of my Whipple surgery by sharing with them some highlights of the life that I have been so very fortunate as to enjoy, and which two years ago today was given an extension that I hope I can somehow do justice to.

It's easy to deal with my education, since it took place in precisely three places: at my tiny primary school, St. Christopher's, followed by The John Lyon School, from which I went up to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Here they are, in order:
St. Christopher's School, Wembley Park, Middlesex
The John Lyon School, Harrow
Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge
Quite a progression, in terms of architecture (and, admittedly, in terms of education too; Trinity College, which was founded by King Henry VIII, somehow survived my time there unscathed but only because long before my arrival it had already nurtured Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, Ernest Rutherford, Wittgenstein, Vladimir Nabokov, Lord Macaulay, A A Milne, Andrew Marvell, Nehru, G E Moore, several British prime ministers, George Herbert, the mathematician G H Hardy, Thackeray, A E Housman, Bertrand Russell, and last but decidely not least no fewer than twenty-seven Nobel Prize winners in the sciences – more than the whole of France, as the Master of the Trinity in my day, the late The Rt. Hon. The Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, hugely enjoyed pointing out).

Traditionally one's education is followed by one's profession but in my case I was already, while at Cambridge, (far too) busily at work – having founded my own publishing company in my second year, and having become, long before my final year, a creator of daily radio features for a commercial radio station based in what was at the time London's tallest office tower, Capital Radio (pictured below).
Capital Radio, London NW1
The popular success of my radio endeavors led in time to the start of my career at BBC Television & Radio (pictured below are BBC TV Center and BBC Broadcasting House, the two epicentres of my BBC years).
BBC Television Centre, London W12
BBC Broadcasting House, London W1
And those BBC activities were complemented by a delightful side-job as feature writer for the British national daily the Daily Mail, where I had the good fortune, under the then editor Sir David English, to write op-ed pieces about the vagaries of the English language.
Northcliffe House, Central London HQ of the Daily Mail

Next came the lure of book publishing, specifically academic book publishing...below are some of the many volumes in the long-running "21st Century Studies" series with which, guided by an incredible International Advisory Board of gifted visionaries and three very close colleagues who were highly accomplished forward-thinkers in their own right, I became most closely identified as Founder & Publisher:

Beyond the Dependency Culture Cover Image Chaotics Cover Image Rescuing All Our Futures Cover Image Changing Visions Cover Image The Evolutionary Outrider Cover Image
Beyond the Dependency Culture Cover Image Caring for Future Generations Cover Image Culture Cover Image Valueware Cover Image The Foresight Principle Cover Image
Praeger Studies on the 21st Century
 

- Praeger Publishers (now ABC-CLIO)

The appeal of analog publishing was steadily superseded by the lure of its digital equivalent, and so began the 13-year U.S. journey which began with magazine publishing but soon morphed into Web publishing. Below are just a handful of the 15 or so print titles that I had the good fortune either to edit or to co-create, before the print versions were retired in favor of their Web equivalents:

 
http://res.sys-con.com/story/oct08/698919/VJ_CoverMockUp.jpg

But no one said that technology magazines, whether published in print or online, would be sufficient to quench the thirst of Enterprise IT professionals for information, news, and analysis of the incredible trajectory of the Internet and all the many associated technologies it has over time fostered.

Accordingly much of the past decade has been devoted to helping produce different series of conferences and expos, from XML DevCon in 2000 and Web Services Edge in 2001 through SOAWorld and then AJAXWorld and Real-World Flex to Virtualization Conference & Expo and then, from 2008 onwards, the international Cloud Expo series, to which we've added Big Data Expo and (soon) SDN Expo.

These various shows, too, are most easily summarized visually. So here goes with a more or less random selection of shots from the 50+ shows that I have had the pleasure and the honor of "sharing and chairing"...
XML DevCon, New York City, 2000
Wireless DevCon, Santa Clara CA, 2000
Web Services Edge, Boston, 2005

1st AJAXWorld, New York City, 2006



6th AJAXWorld, San Jose CA, 2008
9th Cloud Expo, Santa Clara CA, 2010



10th Cloud Expo | Cloud Expo New York 2011
12th Cloud Expo | Cloud Expo New York - coming in June!
So there it is. A brief life-journey triggered by Small Cancer (that's what they term it when the tumor is only 2cm or less in size when they diagnose it...which is all too rarely the case with pancreatic cancer but I was one of the lucky few)...and which has ended in Big Data!

We will have to see if this counts as a life-examination – probably not, more of a very quick skimming of the surface...in which case my life remains "unexamined" by Socratic standards.

But at least it gave me the chance to dig out some old photos, and to make a start at least on making up to those four children (and their wonderful mother) for not often enough, over past thirty years, being on the same time zone as them...let alone the same continent!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Three Days to a Very Strange Anniversary...

In just three days' time it will be exactly two years since the weirdest Valentine's Day I have ever experienced, or hope to experience again.

February 14, 2011, in short, is etched into my diary and my brain as the day when I was diagnosed – out of the blue – with pancreatic cancer.

They say one should always be grateful for what one has. Accordingly, the appropriate emotion ought perhaps to have been a feeling that I was incredibly and wonderfully lucky, because I was not dead. After all, St. Valentine died on the the 14th of February, on the Via Flaminia in the north of Rome. Hence Valentine's Day. Whereas there was I, alive and well, being told by a doctor in Sarajevo's famous KoŇ°evo Hospital a huge complex of buildings on a hill in north Sarajevo that a malignant tumor on the head of my pancreas was what had caused me to turn, from head to toe, yellow. (Jaundice.)

Turning yellow is what saved my life. Many people, so late are they diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, are dead within three months: my good fortune (for that is truly what it was) was to be told something on Valentine's Day that, had I not found out about it till Christmas Day, might have had a very different outcome indeed.

I have
written briefly elsewhere about how very soon afterwards I was wheeled in to an OR at the Copenhagen University Hospital for Whipple surgery, the radical procedure in which, as one fellow pancreatic survivor recently expressed it, "Everything around the pancreas that can be removed, cut, whacked, chopped, is." That operation, simply put, saved my life. It involved the removal of parts of four organs and the reconstruction of my digestive tract and was followed up by chemotherapy that lasted seven looooooong months.
But two years on, here I am. I have out-lived Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace, who had the exact same surgery though the pathology of his pancreatic cancer was somewhat different.

Unlike Jobs, but in common with Patrick Swayze, Joan Crawford, Margaret Mead and Luciano Pavarotti, who all sadly lost their lives to it, my Valentine's Day diagnosis was that I was suffering from the more common form of pancreatic cancer called adenocarcinoma. The bad news about exocrine tumors like pancreatic adenocarcinoma is that they tend to be more aggressive than neuroendocrine tumors, the kind that Jobs had. The good  news though is that if caught early enough they can be treated effectively with surgery. In other words, they can be resected, cut out. "All" that the patient needs is the good fortune to be diagnosed before the cancer has spread beyond such organs as can safely be resected.

I had just such good fortune, and the rest is history as is half of my pancreas, all of my gall bladder, all of my duodenum (the first section of the small intestine), a goodly portion of my common bile duct, and the distal or lowest third of my stomach.

Since the overall five-year survival rate for pancreatic adenocarcinoma is less than 5%, being one of the lucky few who can have it operated into oblivion is an incredible gift. Whipple surgery is reckoned, by the Copenhagen University Hospital (Rigshospitalet) in which I had the operation, to increase the 5-year survival rate from 5% to 40%...which is an astonishing improvement in the odds. I was very happy to agree to it: I quite fancied still being alive and kicking in 2016!

After the Whipple surgery, being told that your tumor has been successfully removed, and that all of the many surrounding lymph nodes also removed during the operation have tested negative for any spread of cancer, is a deeply uplifting experience. Having to undergo the physically brutal elective self-poisoning we call chemotherapy was somewhat less uplifting, but "belt and suspenders" was the approach of my team of Danish oncologists. With four children, a wife, two cats and a dog, why run the risk of the surgeons having missed a few sub-microsocopic cancer cells?

Cytotoxins are nothing if not effective: besides, "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" right?

That is all I am willing to say about chemotherapy. Fast forward thirteen months beyond the end of that chemo, and you get to today. Pancreatic cancer survivors aren't especially numerous, for reasons that CNN spells out quite succinctly here, but that only makes it more important that we lucky ones speak out and, hopefully, embolden others to do the same.

As well as saving it, Whipple surgery also changes your life, since is rearranges your innards in ways that boggle the mind when you see it spelt out in words. Digestion of entire meals is no longer an option, but a world of snacks is better than no world at all. Because my pancreas was my digestive system's main enzyme-producing organ, my aim in "Year Three" must be once and for all to master the nutritional and digestive complications of no longer having sufficient enzymes. I've not quite figured it out, not yet.

This two-year milestone seems as good a time as any to share one or two images do please let me know if you think it's true what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words.

So far so good: the Whipple Surgery is complete.
(Flashback to March 11, 2011)



Oops, this isn't quite how anyone was hoping the surgical incision 
would look ten days later, but in the end it healed just fine


Back in the TV studio in Times Square, just three 
months after the Whipple surgery. Studio makeup is a wonderful thing!