When I was ten years old I was convinced I was a mutant, and it turns out that I was right. Back then, the X-Men were my favorite comic book characters. The group featured an array of super-human heroes that banded together to fight not only the world’s villains but also the parts of society that tried to divide us instead of unite us. What drew me to the X-Men, wasn’t their powers but their pathos. To a character, every member of the team had an ostracizing trait because of his or her mutation. Before joining the group, the trait was experienced as shame, and it separated them from society. By joining together in a common purpose, these genetic accidents became a source of strength. I remember being wide awake in my childhood bed and thinking that someday all of the insecurities I felt would be translated into strength. The thought allowed me to fall asleep.
It didn’t quite unfold that way of course. Unlike the X-Men, my adolescence came and went in a fairly mundane manner. I never sprouted wings, or claws, or shot laser beams out of my eyes, and in those teen years I was happy enough to just blend in. Over time the shyness that bothered me as a child faded, and some of my natural strengths were suddenly useful and in vogue. My inability to hit a ball over the fence mattered less in college than my skills in math and science. By the time I reached medical school, the only thing that mattered was my ability to learn, and it served me well.
In my first year, I learned that the natural tendency for human beings is to mutate constantly. Our DNA is literally making mistakes all the time. Thankfully, we have protective mechanisms built into our genetic makeup that catch and correct the vast majority of glitches before they become problematic. It still amazes me to think that all of us exist at the brink of catastrophe each and every moment but somehow we persist.
Sometimes a genetic mistake is passed down from one generation to the next and other times a new DNA coding error slips through the system. When the genes involved are tumor suppressors or proto-oncogenes, the result can be cancer. I was 33 years old when I learned that such had been the case for me in my kidney. All of these years later, I was a mutant after all.
For a time after my diagnosis, I lamented with a smirk that my mutation didn’t come with any extraordinary powers, but the more I reflected on my childhood admiration for the X-Men, the more uncertain of that I felt. In fact, I recalled that the underlying quality that brought the X-Men together wasn’t their abilities but their challenges. Charles Xavier is physically disabled but as Professor X he uses the power of his mind to do good. Logan was born with claws and a beast-like aggression but as Wolverine he channels his rage into heroism. Scott Summers literally can’t open his eyes without destroying the world around him and Anna Marie can’t make physical human contact without endangering the people she loves, but as Cyclops and Rogue their flaws become strengths.
The mutations that led to my cancer definitely did not come with super powers, but perhaps they did bring gifts. There is value in seeing the world through new eyes and realizing that life is a fleeting thing that must be cherished. Saying ‘no’ to something I don’t want to do is suddenly more attainable, and pursuing goals that had forever been on the back burner is now in the foreground. When I show a patient that I care by listening to them fully when all my mind wants to do is ruminate about my own health, I wonder if that is not some kind of worthy ability to be proud of. I never feel better than when I’m able to pause my anxieties to spend time goofing around and wrestling with my son on the floor. When I write about living with this condition and put it out into the ether, I know that I am doing good because of the ways in which the cancer community responds.
In the world of X-Men, the team represents just a small fraction of the mutants in the world. Most go about their lives in hiding, simultaneously undiscovered and still feared by the normal people around them. Perhaps, we mutants in our real world aren’t so different. We’re your loved ones, your colleagues, and your neighbors. We connect quietly in doctors office waiting rooms and hidden corners of the internet. I think the best of us are advocates for our cause, pushing for awareness, community, and research. We rely on doctors, scientists, philanthropists, the government, and all of the other normal people in our lives. Our aim is to help push the science forward to make sure that some day our children won’t have to go through what we have. In our very best moments we try to take a horrific disease and make something good happen in the world. Won’t you join us?
Adam Stern, MD is an Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Director of Psychiatric Applications at the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation. He was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in January 2018. His writing on this topic has been published at WBUR / NPR Boston, KC Cure, and the NY Post.