Celebrity cancer.

As a columnist forever decrying the cancers of terrorism, corruption and injustice that fatally afflict so many countries, and the epidemic of sensationalism and celebrity-obsession that threatens to terminally trivialise the world’s media, I suppose it’s only fitting that I’ve been afflicted with a cancer that’s achieved a small measure of celebrity, at least in medical circles.

Nothing serious, I’m relieved to relate. Just a basal cell carcinoma, which, however sinister it might sound, is nothing but a slow-growing, non-life-threatening pink epidermal lump. In my case about a centimeter in diameter and situated on the left forearm.

But the moment that my skin specialist, Dr Fergal, spotted it, his eyes lit up as if it was something special. And indeed it turned out to be a cancer in a million, or rather in over six billion, as it got me selected as the very first human subject in the trial of a new experimental anti-cancer agent, code-named Dz13.

Apparently this substance had proven highly effective in shrinking and even eliminating tumours in mice, rats and monkeys, and I had happened along at just the right time to be invited to become the first human guinea pig in the quest to see if it’s as safe and effective for people as it’s deadly to neoplasms.

To qualify for this privilege, however, I first had to pass a course of tests: blood tests, urine tests, vital-signs tests and finally an ECG. A week after this, having apparently achieved passing grades on the tests, I was allocated trial patient number 9001, checked into a research unit for administration of the Dz13, and then regular repeats of the whole testing regime for the following 24 hours.

Such round-the-clock scrutiny turned out to be quite a surreal experience. Somewhat similar, or so I imagined, to being a protected witness in the forthcoming trial of a Mafia or other mob suspect, and thus kept in a safe house under armed guard to ensure I lived long enough to take the stand. Only in this case the security guards’ weapons were syringes, stethoscopes and a whole armoury of other medical devices, and the real star of the show wasn’t really me, but my basal cell carcinoma, or in medical parlance, BCC.

My day and night of incarceration passed surprisingly quickly, and the countless injections and blood-takings quite painlessly, thanks to the friendly personalities and outstanding professional skills of team leader Joan, her deputy Julia, chief investigator Dr Fergal, investigator Dr Eun-Ae, attending physician Dr Carlos and nurses Belinda and Pam.

And my BCC, perhaps overwhelmed by all this unaccustomed attention, not to mention numerous photographs and a knock-out dose of the aforementioned Dz13, showed no symptoms of celebrity temperament.

A week later I was invited to participate in a photo shoot for the media with the microbiologist from the University of NSW who headed the team that developed Dz13, Dr Levon. But it emerged that the only part of me that was wanted in the picture was my BCC. So, swallowing my disappointment at being left out of the frame, I decided to celebrate my cancer’s albeit modest fame by giving it a name.

As good an idea as this may have been, however, I have to admit it wasn’t original. In fact the first cancer that I recall being lifted from anonymity by being given a famous if not notorious name was the one that British journalist, author, playright and TV talk-show host Dennis Potter contracted back in the 1990s.

Soon after he was diagnosed with it on 14 February 1994, and while he waited the four months it took to terminally metastasise through his liver and pancreas, Potter entertained himself and his family, friends and fans by referring to his cancer as “Rupert” in honour – or rather dishonor – of Rupert Murdoch, the “drivel merchant” and “global huckster” he considered most responsible for debasing the modern-day mass media.

However, though entirely sharing Potter’s opinion of Murdoch, I realized that I could hardly call my own cancer Rupert. For one thing it would be tantamount to plagiarism, and for another my benign and thus harmless BCC didn’t really deserve being dubbed Rupert or any other of the first names on my long personal list of living malignancies, like Robert (as in Mugabe), Omar (al-Bashir), Fox (News), Kim (Jong-il), Henry (Kissinger), Osama (Bin Laden), Al (Qaeda), Sarah (Palin), Mohamad (Mahathir), Najib (Razak), Hishammuddin (Hussein), Khir (Toyo) and many others.

After all, my BCC was just a blemish on my arm, not a blot on a whole nation or the entire human race. And in any case I’d volunteered it to serve for the good of mankind and thus I could hardly give it a moniker implying that I bore it any malice.

Nor, however merely skin-deep it might have been, did was my BCC strike me as so utterly irrelevant, let alone irritating, as to warrant trivializing with the name of some celebrity superficiality like, for example, Paris (Hilton), Naomi (Campbell) or Simon (Cowell).

So on more mature thought I decided it was best to let it remain anonymous. In any case, my BCC’s fame has turned out to be fleeting, as it’s now been excised and sliced-up into ultra-thin sections for microscopic examination.

Which wouldn’t be a bad idea, come to think of it, for some of the pathological personalities and organizations listed above. In other words, just as my slightly famous if nameless and blameless basal cell carcinoma has died to help combat cancer, I wish we could find a more efficient way to remove some of the world’s more infamous human tumours, and also to stop the cancer of insignificant, irrelevant celebrity from killing our minds and our media.


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