Horny toads, sisters and mixed up priorities

Exact change by Lynda Waddington,
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June 15, 2014 | 2:13 am

When I was two years old, most people believed I could read. According to family lore, I would grab my favorite book from the shelf — “Horton Hatches the Egg” by Dr. Seuss — flop onto the floor, open the cover and, beginning with the title page, say every word as I turned the pages at the appropriate time.

It was all a parlor trick.

My older sister, Cathy, read the book to me so many times I’d memorized not only every word, but with which pages they belonged. We should have taken a tin cup and performed on street corners.

I’m the baby of a very large family and, despite our age difference or maybe because of it, Cathy and I were inseparable until she graduated high school and left for business school. In fact, there was a rumor I was actually her daughter, birthed under cloak of darkness or some such nonsense. Back in those days, a young, unmarried woman having a child was quite the scandal, but Cathy laughed it off.

Each day after school, we’d walk to the drugstore and Cathy would buy me an Icee and, while I sipped, she taught me Spanish.

We liked to spend time at our grandmother’s place, where’d we arrive with a bucket of fried chicken and then use the container as a pet taxi for captured horny toads. When the family drove Cathy to her first year of business school, we went by way of our grandmother’s house. We later pulled into the school parking lot, the whole mess of us crammed into a 1968 Chevy Nova with three new chickens and two buckets of horny toads.

“Look out,” Cathy yelled at some young people outside of the dorm, “here come the Beverly Hillbillies.”

Cathy later moved to Houston, fell in love with and married Willie, the tallest man I’d ever seen. They had two boys, Jimmy and Jason.

It was decades later, after my mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, that Cathy returned to our hometown. Recently widowed, she rented a house and placed her two young boys in school. That was when I learned most people thought Willie was unusual, not for his height, but due to his skin color. The boys were not welcomed in rural America and, after much torment, Cathy and the boys moved back to the city.

In January 2009, my oldest daughter and I made our way to Houston for the burial of Cathy’s second husband. Because of an ice storm, we were forced away from our typical family-dotted route and instead traveled straight south to New Orleans before cutting back along the Gulf Coast to Texas. Just months removed from the flooding in Eastern Iowa, I wanted more than anything to find a little renewal or rebirth there amid the hurricane devastation. I found overall frustration and, of course, the funeral of another loved one.

And now I’ve learned my beloved sister also has been diagnosed with cancer.

PERSPECTIVE

I’m finding it difficult at the moment to get worked up about ignorant Facebook comments, clean-shaven upper lips or sexism in the form of livestock. It just all seems so … juvenile and petty.

Cancer is the second-largest killer of Americans, with an estimated 1.7 million Americans expected to be diagnosed this year. Worldwide, an estimated 7.6 million people will die of cancer this year. And, by 2030, it is believed that cancer deaths worldwide will exceed 12 million.

While it is true that mankind has made significant progress in treating cancer, resulting in better quality of life and extended life, most of the benefits we have today came in the wake of the 1971 National Cancer Act. It was following this government-organized effort that lumpectomy replaced the more invasive mastectomy in the treatment of breast cancer, and understanding regarding leukemia produced effective treatments to what once was a definitive death sentence.

Another bipartisan groundswell took place in 1997, under the tenure of President Bill Clinton, and resulted in a 1999 budget for the National Institutes of Health that contained an unprecedented 15 percent increase — more than $2 billion above the FY 1998 level. Political leaders claimed the increase to be a first installment on a promise to double funding over a five-year period, but they did not follow-through.

Instead of fulfilling the promise to NIH and continuing to make cancer research a priority, government leaders have chosen a different path that mostly leads away from science and to foreign conflicts.

NIH funding had remained mostly flat since the turn of the century. But when adjusted for inflation, the funding had effectively decreased by more than 20 percent. The government shutdown, and subsequent sequestration, also brought a toll. Congress did restore $1 billion in funding to NIH and the National Cancer Institute in January, but their budgets remain far below what they once were.

If the funding situation isn’t rectified soon, we will lose ground in the fight against cancer.

A September 2013 survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology found 75 percent of respondents reporting current federal funding is hampering their ability to conduct research. A number of respondents labeled the cutbacks as “devastating.” In addition, more than a third of respondents reported lay offs or termination of skilled lab and clinical workers, which industry experts believe will lead to a knowledge loss of a generation or more.

Perhaps most troubling in light of state news, 60 percent of the researchers responding to the study indicated they conduct their work at academic institutions. It remains to be seen how and to what depth a recent shift by the Iowa Board of Regents to a performance-based funding formula will negatively impact research at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

l Comments: (319) 339-3144 or @LyndaIowa or lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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