Category Archives: science

Laika the Space Dog

A second-generation friend of mine on Facebook posts, nearly every day, a “This day in history” post, which I always look forward to.  (By second-generation, I mean, a friend, in this case a cousin, of someone I actually know.  In a few rare cases, I’m friends with the friends of people I don’t know, Facebook having re-defined the definition of “friend”.  Well, that’s why they call it social networking.)

So, yesterday, July 20th, in the year 1960, the U.S. recovered the first living beings to have orbited the earth.  Two dogs.

But first there was Laika.  Laika was the first living creature to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, Sputnik 2.  Other dogs had been sent into space, but suborbitally. Laika was launched into space on November 3, 1957.  No matter what happened, Laika was never coming back.  No matter how long the craft orbited, there was only enough oxygen for 6 days.  The scientists had taught Laika to eat food pellets and the plan was to feed her a poisoned food pellet before the oxygen ran out.  If the craft had fallen out of orbit before the oxygen ran out, she would have died anyway because the craft was not designed to survive re-entry.  (It eventually disintegrated on April 14, 1958 upon re-entry.)

The official explanation was that the plan had been activated.  Laika was euthanized on Day 6 before the oxygen ran out.  You gotta love the official explanations of the Soviet Union.  In fact, what really happened is that there was a malfunction of the cooling system and Laika died from the heat 6 or 7 hours into the orbit.  I guess they didn’t know about this malfunction in time to euthanize her before she fried.  The true story wasn’t revealed until 2002.

Here are a few quotes from the Wikipedia article about her (which for a Wikipedia article, seems strangely accurate–they actually cite sources).

“Before the launch, one of the scientists took Laika home to play with his children.  In a book chronicling the story of Soviet space medicine. Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky wrote ‘I wanted to do something nice for her.  She had so little time left to live'”.

“One of the technicians preparing the capsule before final liftoff states that ‘after placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight'”.

Finally, “It was not until 1998, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space, expressed regret for allowing her to die.  ‘Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us.  We treat them like babies who cannot speak.  We shouldn’t have done it.  We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog'”.

At the time of Laika’s death, I was only 7 years old, and totally unaware of it. But her death sparked a huge outcry (there was resistance to it before that, but Laika’s death created more awareness).  I remember in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s, there were bitter debates about the use of animals to test new medicines and cosmetics.  Cosmetics?  As late as 1993, I had an argument with my cousin, an officer in the U.S. Navy, about the use of dolphins to seek out mines in the ocean.  He said, is it better to lose one dolphin, or a thousand human beings?

That was a good question. It still is a good question.  Today, 20 years later, the Navy is phasing out its use of dolphins, and the U.S. is phasing out its use of chimpanzees for research.  Technology has surpassed the usefulness of these animals.  But back when we didn’t have such sophisticated technology, was it okay then?  It seems to me that Laika’s trainers and handlers found it an agonizing decision.

Reading With Fakename: The Age of Miracles

By Katherine Thompson Walker.

The main character in the book is Julia, an 11 year-old girl who is in the sixth grade. An only child, Julia lives with her mother, a teacher, and her father, a doctor.  Julia plays soccer and takes piano lessons, has a crush on a boy named Seth, and is painfully sensitive to acceptance or the lack thereof by her friends.  She is lonely.

In the midst of this adolescent trauma, something happens:  the earth begins to slow its rotation.  Rotation refers to the rotation of the earth around its own axis.  The earth continues to revolve around the sun at the same pace.  “The slowing”, as they will come to call it, lengthens the days.  At first, no one notices.  By the time someone does, a day has lengthened to 25 hours and 37 minutes.

This is actually happening.  A day is now 1.7 milliseconds longer than it was 100 years ago.  It will take hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, for Earth to stop revolving altogether.  But in the book, the process is dramatically escalated.

Most countries, including the U.S. decide to remain on “clock time” with a day that is 24 hours long.  “Time” becomes unhinged from “day” and “night”.  You can wake up in what seems to be the middle of the night to go to work or school, and the sun will “rise” at maybe 2:00 in the afternoon.  It’s very disorienting.  Unlike what you think might be the case, prolonged periods of darkness aren’t the problem.  It’s the prolonged periods of light.

The first thing that happens is that birds start dropping out of the sky.  It’s assumed that gravity is increasing.  People are getting sick too, and it’s initially called “gravity sickness”.  Eventually they just call it “the Syndrome”.  It gets worse.

This book is hard to categorize, as all the best books are.  It isn’t science fiction exactly, it isn’t apocalyptic exactly, it isn’t a coming-of-age story exactly.  It’s provocative, and makes you think, What if you really WERE living in the “end times”?  The best explanation is from the book itself:

“It still amazes me how little we really knew.

We had rockets and satellites and nanotechnology.  We had robot arms and robot hands, robots for roving the surface of Mars.  Our unmanned planes, controlled remotely, could hear human voices from three miles away.  We could manufacture skin, clone sheep.  We could make a dead man’s heart pump blood through the body of a stranger.  We were making great strides in the realms of love and sadness–we had drugs to spur desire, drugs for melting pain.  We performed all sorts of miracles:  We could make the blind see and the deaf hear, and doctors daily conjured babies from the wombs of infertile women.  At the time of the slowing, stem cell researchers were on the verge of healing paralysis–surely the lame soon would have walked.

And yet, the unknown still outweighed the known.”

A very powerful and haunting book.

The Alleged Afterlife

Of all the things I find seriously hard to accept about religion (at least the top three–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), this is the one I have the hardest time with.  Three things seem to be going on here, as far as I’m concerned.  One, we just can’t believe that a person as unique as ourselves–there will never be another person like us–can simply disappear.  Second, we want to believe that we will be reunited with the people we love.  So the afterlife will be just like real life, except better somehow.  (I wonder if Heaven has Facebook?)  Third, we need to believe that our suffering meant something.  That we will be rewarded for it. 

I say, what is so bad about disappearing? 

When my friend Art died (friend being not quite the right term) in October of 2005, I went to a New Year’s Eve ceremony with my friend Judith at her church, the Unity Church.  Technically, I think the term “church” here is used very loosely.  But I wanted to go because they have a traditional ceremony called The Burning Bowl.  It’s to leave behind things you want to…leave behind.  So I wrote a very long letter to Art, which I intended to burn.  But it turned out that due to restrictions imposed by the Fire Department–because the Burning Bowl was inside the building–you had to write one word, in pencil, on a small piece of onionskin paper, which whooshed itself out in a matter of seconds.  Kind of like life, on a shorter scale. 

However, they had created a bonfire in the back yard, so I was able to burn my letter to Art in the bonfire.  When I threw it in, someone said, What is that?  And my friend Judith said to him, Shhh. 

My dog had died earlier that year.  He was 13, and I’d had him for 12 years.  My letter said something like this:  Dear Art.  You and Troy Russell are now both part of the universe.  Neither you nor he will ever be “you” again, but you will be part of something new and amazing.  You will be part of a flower or a star. 

So I guess you could say I do believe in an afterlife, but it’s an afterlife of atoms.

News From the World of “Duh”

A new study has shown that rats who are deprived of sleep don’t think as well. This may apply to humans too, but it’s as yet unproven. 


I kind of stole that “Duh” thing from Andy Borowitz, who created a fictional publication called Duh Magazine.  His latest post reveals that Barack Obama admitted that he ran unsucessfully for the presidency of Kenya in 2005, but was disqualified because they couldn’t prove he was a citizen of Kenya.   


Is Hawaii really a state?


Rumor has it that two people in England got married on Friday and it was a very big deal all over the planet.  At least it was a big deal to the comparatively miniscule percentage of people on the planet who have cable TV.  I actually KNOW two people who got up at 4:00 A.M. to watch the wedding in real time.  Which they had to do because it isn’t always Friday on Friday wherever you are.  Or at least, it’s later on Friday than you thought. 


This week, friend Rocky , or more properly, Rocky’s wife, alerted us to the danger of snow globes.  I’m accustomed to always traveling with a snow globe in my carry-on luggage.  That way if your checked baggage gets lost, you will still have something warm and purry to cuddle up to while you sleep on the floor of the airport lounge.  Plus, it’s a great way to store  cocaine flakes.

Plutoed: Fakename Studies Astronomy

Well, not exactly. 

The occasion for the post is that I’m reading the novel Percival’s Planet; the link is to a review of the book in the Washington Post, and I’d say it’s very accurate.  The book is described as being “inspired by” the true story of the discovery of Pluto in 1930.    The problem with these “based on/inspired by” stories is that unless you know enough about the real story, it’s hard to tell who is a real person and who is fictional, or what really happened or didn’t.  I decided I needed to educate myself further about the real story, and therein lies the problem (math and physics are involved).  So in the process of my online investigation, I found I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew, but nevertheless, I feel more illuminated anyway.

Try to follow along here with Fakename.  First let’s review the position of the planets: 

Note the absence of Pluto

Pluto isn’t included, because in 2006, Pluto was plutoed.  Plutoed was a new word, designated that same year as the “word of the year” by some organization or another that does that sort of thing.  It means to be “demoted or downgraded in value”.  It went from being a planet to being a dwarf planet, one of five.  The book review notes that the decision by the International Astronomical Union to downgrade Pluto was met by a popular outcry, leading to the creation of several T-shirts, including one that said “That’s OK Pluto.  I’m not a planet either”.  Fakesister told me about one that reads, “Back when I was your age, Pluto was a planet”.

Now we move to the history.  Prior to the discovery of Neptune, it was noted that something seemed to be causing disruptions in the orbit of Uranus (please refer to diagram above).  Neptune was postulated, then found.  Once found, it was determined that Neptune alone was not sufficient to explain the problem with Uranus, so there had to be something else.  That something else was the theoretical “9th planet”, which Percival Lowell, the Percival of the book, called Planet X.  The last years of his life were spent trying to find it, in vain. 

The guy who did discover it did so using something called a “blink comparator”, technology not available to Lowell.  He tried to do it with math.  The comparator process involves taking photographs of the same portion of the sky about a week apart, putting them side by side, then looking at them back and forth rapidly (blinking, I guess) to determine if something seems to have moved.  This seems silly to us today, when you have digital photographs and computer analysis and so on, but to me, that’s what makes the discovery of Pluto all the more amazing.  This guy did it with his eyes and his brain. 

So since 2006, Pluto and it’s largest moon Charon have been designated part of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of stuff outside the solar system.  I’ll spare you from talking about the asteroid belt (between Mars and Jupiter) and the centaurs (between the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt).  Here’s the position poor little Pluto holds today:

Poor little Pluto, at least it has company

One of the things I discovered is that astronomers are both very whimsical and contentious people.  There are still arguments going on about whether Pluto is a planet or not, and whether or not the Kuiper Belt should really be named after Kuiper.  I think all that math and physics addles their brains.

Fakename’s Animal Planet: The Chiton

It amazes me that I haven’t written anything since December 12th.  In my defense, well…I can’t think of anything in my defense.  At least nothing really good.

I did post, on January 2nd, the WordPress summary of my blog stats for 2010.  Those stats make it abundantly clear that most people prefer my postings about animals, as opposed to my brilliant political analysis.  What is the world coming to? 

So today we will talk about the lowly chiton, a marine mollusk found all over the world.  The occasion for this is an episode I heard last week on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

Scientists, it seems, are busy doing their usual routine, which is waking up one morning and saying “I wonder why….” or “I wonder how…” or “What if…”.  So a scientist at Northwestern University wondered how it is that squishy things like oysters make hard shells…or for that matter, how squishy things like humans make bones and teeth. 

So he began studying chitons.  Here is a pretty one: 

On the other hand, here’s the one he studies: 

So it turns out that chitons eat rocks.  They still haven’t figured out the process by which that makes them able to form inorganic structures like shells, but if they can, they may be able to figure out how to make better artificial bones and teeth for people.  (Aside:  scientists can no longer just ask “I wonder what would happen if…” In order to get grant money or remain employed, you have to show that it has some potential benefits to humans.  Pure curiousity and knowledge is no longer acceptable.  Perhaps it never was.  If you think about the great scientists of the past, they either financed themselves or had patrons.  We humans are so egocentric.  Sometimes I think  we would be better off if dolphins took over the world.) This is apparently a relatively new branch of science called “biomaterials”.  I immediately thought of spider webs.  I wonder if anyone has yet figured out how to make something that strong?  Of course, to build a building out of spider web material, you would need to bring the spider along to rebuild it overnight when a bird/frog/lizard smashes a hole in the web in the process of stealing your food. 

It turns out that chitons have lots of teeth.  Chiton teeth: 

Perhaps as a side effect of munching on rocks, their teeth are self-sharpening.  As NPR wryly noted, even if they don’t figure out the shell-producing process, it could be a big boon to the next generation of Ginsu knives.  Coming soon to your late-night infomercial. 

From NPR:  Rock-Munching Mollusks.

God…Or Not

I haven’t believed in God since I was 12 years old, which doesn’t mean I didn’t want to at one time.  I had this idea that it was my particular brand of religion that was at fault, and that if I just found the right religion, then God would make more sense to me. 

That completely explains why, when I started college, I majored in philosophy.  In my defense, keep in mind that I started college at 17.  I of course thought I was a fully-formed adult human, sprung from the head of Zeus or something.  Of course, I was in fact, lame.  My first college crush was on my philosophy professor Dr. Bowman, who taught Philosophy of Religion.  He once gave us a quote in class, by somebody famous, which said something to the effect that it’s sad that man loses his faith in religion without at the same time losing his need for it.  Yes!  Exactly!  I said. 

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in this quest, since there has to be some explanation for the Hare Krishnas. 

However, the philosophy angle didn’t work for me.  I thought I had found the magic lamp when we studied Spinoza who logically “proved” the existence of God.  Except I had to write a paper on him and poked holes in his argument long before we got from A to C. 

Then I switched to anthropology, where I learned something very interesting.  As far as I can recall, there is no culture, no civilization without a concept of “God” or “gods” and a corresponding belief in an afterlife.  Which taught me this:  religion is a univeral human need.  But universal human need is not the same thing as universal truth.  That is the problem.  When you leap from “Everybody believes it” to “It must be true”, then I’ve abandoned you before we even got from A to B. 

In the end, the only people I really respect are the Pascal-ish people , who say, Yeah, I can’t prove it, but I choose to believe it and it makes me happier.  (That’s a bit of a perversion of Pascal, but like I said, Pascal-ish.)

If only I could find more of them who said, if you choose not to, that’s okay by me.  But somebody is always trying to convert me, and I have several pet peeves about the whole thing.

There must be something more than this life.  Really?  Why?  Maybe if more of us believed that this is all there is, we would try harder.  Maybe we wouldn’t just wait for a better life around the bend.  Maybe we wouldn’t be sucked in by the idea of the 72 virgins. 

I’m praying for you.  Grrr.  This one really gets me.  I don’t mind you praying for me to the God of your choice if I’m having a crisis, but I do mind you praying for me hoping I’ll “see the light”.  It insults me. 

Here’s what I think.  I think the universe is a miraculous place, and we are miraculous beings within it.  I don’t need a “watchmaker” to have made it all.  (And who was it who said that anyway?  St. Thomas Aquinas?)  The main thing you can get me to agree to in the Bible is this:  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  There will never be another you or me.  I used to upset my grandmother endlessly by quizzing her about Heaven.  Will we have bodies?  What will we look like?  Will we be old or young, or the age we were when we died?  Can the dog go too? 

I think we are made of atoms, which will combine with other atoms at some future date to form a new entity.  That’s enough immortality and awe to suit me.

Famous People In History: Ivan Pavlov

There’s a certain logic to why I’ve chosen this particular person to highlight, but I would not recommend you try to follow that logic since it exposes you to the danger of thinking like Fakename does.

However, it started with my thinking about eating dogs, which I posted about yesterday, and progressed to thinking about dog behavior, particularly my own, whom I will never eat.  Well, unless I find myself in some post-apocalyptic situation, then all bets are off.  I was thinking about the concept of what I call “accidental learning”, where dogs learn stuff you wish they hadn’t. 

In my case, the dogs have learned to associate my shutting down the computer with food.  First, the computer makes that Windows sound…”Dah dah dah…dah dah” (fade….).  This means that I will likely be standing up, and if I’m standing up, there is a greater chance that I will be somewhere near the food container, and that some of that food will end up in their bowls.  Thus, when they hear the Windows sound, they start dancing.  Very, very annoying. 

This led me to think about Pavlov and his bell.  See?  I warned you not to try to follow this. 

I admit that the only thing I could remember about Pavlov had to do with bells and dogs, but there is so much more to him, as I learned from the Wikipedia entry about Pavlov’s life.

First, it seems there was some controversy about whether or not he actually ever used a bell.  (And you thought Fakename spends too much time contemplating subjects from the Who Cares? category.) 

So the judgement of history is this:  Yes, he did use a bell, but he also used a variety of stimuli including “electric shocks, whistles, metronomes, tuning forks, and a variety of visual stimuli”.  If only Pavlov had had Windows.  It would have saved him a lot of time. 

Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1904 for his work on how the digestive system functions.  This came from his observation that dogs begin to salivate before they actually have access to food.  This “reflexive” response led him to further experiments, such as an investigation into the response to stress and pain.  I guess I don’t have to tell you how you study that.  The answer is, you have to induce it. 

Which brings us at last to the larger philosophical question, which is, Is this something we really needed to know?  And was it worth causing suffering to helpless creatures to find it out?  Fakename says no, because we already knew it.  Even in Pavlov’s lifetime, anybody with a dog could have told you about that reflexive response thing, even without Windows.  But there was (and possibly still is) a mindset among certain scientists, who believe that a phenomenon isn’t “true” unless it’s described under “controlled conditions”.

There was a time when cosmetics were routinely tested on rabbits, followed by a time when cosmetic companies prominently noted that their products were never tested on animals.  Now you never see those disclaimers, because it’s understood that it doesn’t happen.  If there is a value to inducing pain and stress in other animals, what would that value be? 

Fakename thinks that Pavlov would be perfectly comfortable in today’s world, where we can have an apparently serious national debate about the effectivenes of waterboarding, without regard to its moral implications.

How Your Brain Works

Frankly, I don’t know how your brain works, nor do you.  I don’t know how my brain works either (assuming it does).  And the bad news–or the good news, depending on how you look at it–is that no one else does either.  Bad news if you’re trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s; good news if you get a little queasy about telepathy and “mind-control” stuff.  Not that mind-c0ntrol (behavioral conditioning) can’t be accomplished without actually knowing how it works inside the brain. 

I think a little mystery is a good thing. While there is a certain loneliness inherent in the human condition, expressed in the simple saying, “You can never really know another person”, if you could, would you?  I personally am not ready to be Borg…but I digress.

Today we will discuss two important concepts relative to brain function:  phobias, and chocolate cake. 

First let us define phobia:  it’s something YOU are scared of.  If I’m scared of something, it’s an endearing quirk.  If you’re scared of something, you’re irrational.  Let’s take two examples. 

First ailurophobia, or fear of cats.  Fakename has never understood this, but she has a theory as to why it might develop.  Cats apparently don’t have the facial muscles to be particularly expressive.  They can move their ears, and open and close their mouths (very useful for eating), and they can twitch their noses, but the eyes are the problem.  They don’t blink often, and so appear to be staring, which we humans interpret as aggression.  Not to mention all the times they’ve sucked the breath out of our sleeping babies. 

Second, gephyrophobia, fear of bridges.  This is not as uncommon as you might think.  Let’s pause for a moment to say that an anxiety doesn’t reach the level of phobia unless it affects your behavior.  Such as–I will never again travel from Tallahassee to Jacksonville without going however many miles out of the way I have to go to reach it from the south.  Never again will I do that I-10, I-95 Junction thing with the elevated roadways.  But mostly, it’s bridges over water that are scary. 

This is a relatively new development for me, because I have driven over some monster bridges.  The Lake Ponchartrain Causeway.  Not to mention the Huey P. Long bridge.  The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.  The Confederation Bridge between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in Canada–actually, I was a passenger for that one, but still.  However, nothing compares bridge-wise to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay.  I date my personal bridge phobia to having to cross it.  I had never experienced anything like it. 

It’s described as “one of the world’s longest bridges with a cable-stayed main span”.   The cables are painted yellow, and here’s the deal:  when you hit the section of road where the cables are, it sets up a sort of optical illusion which is disorienting.  Behold: 

Curiously, Fakesister shares this fear of bridges.  Last year she took a trip to northern California and we had some discussion about how and if she would make it over the Golden Gate.  Somewhere out there is a scientist who would like to study us. 

Finally, some scientists did an experiment that went like this:  A group of people were asked to memorize either two-digit numbers or seven-digit numbers, then all they had to do was walk down the hall, go into another room, and repeat the numbers.  But they were interrupted by being asked to choose a snack:  a refreshing bowl of healthy fruit, or chocolate cake.  It turns out that the people who had to remember seven digits were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake.  This proves, or suggests…something or the other.  There was no word on whether either group remembered their numbers.  You can see the story, which aired on NPR,  here.

Weighing In on Breast Cancer

Or at least on the raging debate that has occurred this week.  Warning notice:  I’m about to express some opinions.  Some of those opinions will be supported by “facts” (I place quotes around “facts”, because facts can never be separated from our perception of them–that must be the philosophy student in me rearing its ugly head), but I will not be posting any links for you to check where I got my “facts”.  If you don’t believe me, look it up yourself.  As I am fond of saying, this is a blog, not a term paper.  You won’t find any op. cits. here.  Additional warning:  You can dispute the “facts” all you want unless it concerns my personal body, which you don’t have enough information about to dispute. 

That doesn’t mean you won’t get some links.  To begin with, Thursday’s op-ed column in the NY Times by Gail Collins, always one of my favorites, who pretty much pokes fun at the hysteria the “new” recommendations concerning mammograms has engendered.  “New”, as in, returning to previous recommendations, with now even more evidence to support them.  But the hysteria involves “rationing” and “death panels”.  God, you people (and you know who you are) make me tired.  I suggested to my most rabidly conservative friend that he read her column, and he did, and sent me a message afterwards that I would describe as a diatribe, if I weren’t trying to be kinder and gentler.  In his defense, his mother and many other people he knows have had breast cancer, so it is a very emotional issue for him.  Yeah, well, me too.  In her column, Gail mentions that she had breast cancer herself.  I think she should be cut a little slack for that.  But never underestimate the power of fear, and men fear for their wives, their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, and their friends, and fear is never subject to logic.  It would be foolish to think that only women are affected by breast cancer, and I’m not talking about the fact that men get breast cancer too, which they do.  I’m talking about it affecting the men who love the women who get it.  And if you are the person who has cancer, you feel very much that the situation is out of your control.  As the friend or family member of a person with cancer, you are that much more out of control.  It’s like helpless, then helpless once removed.  That’s why you find people with cancer comforting those around them;  it’s actually worse for you. 

Now we move to the “facts”.  Most breast cancers are extremely slow growing.  It takes years for a tumor to be large enough to be visible on a mammogram.  So two years is not an unreasonable interval. 

Most women develop breast cancer after age 50. 

The value of self-exams has been questioned for forever.  I understand in theory that if you know your own body, you’re better able to detect changes.  Nothing wrong with that.  The problem is that most women don’t know what they’re looking for.  Many women have “lumpy” breasts (sorry to get so technical).  It’s called fibrocystic disease, which is benign (although I’ve recently learned that a history of it is now considered a risk factor for breast cancer), so even if you were to detect a new lump, your response might be “whatever”. 

Mammograms are far better than self-exams, except they aren’t very good.  Collins notes that having just had a clear mammogram, she then found a lump on her own.  In this case, self-exam worked.  The most sensible thing I heard all week was a quote by someone from the Susan B. Komen Foundation who said that this was at least a good debate, since it sheds light on the fact that mammograms are a poor test.  CT scans are much better, but they cost ten times what a mammogram does.  Now there is the debate we should be having:  about why we aren’t doing the best testing available.  Mammograms are crude, and reading them is subject to varying levels of competence by the radiologist.  Of course, so are CT scans. 

Now we get to the part about cutting me some slack too.  In my own case, the tumor was detected by CT scan–a scan I had for an entirely different reason.  Afterwards, I had a mammogram and an ultrasound, but it’s important to note that the mammogram I had was “diagnostic” as opposed to “screening”.  Screening mammograms, which are of the type women have every year, are very general, and I think of them as tests that something has to jump off the screen for the radiologist to recognize.  Between the screening mammogram and the breast exam by a doctor, you hope you will pick up something, operative word here being hope.  Not guaranteed.  Diagnostic mammograms are a lot more detailed (and a lot less fun).  After the CT scan I had, I had that diagnostic mammogram and that’s what I have every year now.  And the results of that first diagnostic were, yeah, there’s something there…not sure what it is….

I will never know for sure whether a screening mammogram would have picked up the tumor first, before I had the CT.  But I seriously doubt it.  My personal advice is, if you can afford it, have a CT scan.  (You have to do that anyway if you have breast implants, I recently learned!)

Finally, for a bit more factual information.  This op-ed article appeared in today’s NY Times and it’s entitled Addicted to Mammograms.  The author explains rather well the history of breast cancer treatment and recommendations, and really, it would apply to most cancers. 

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I have a friend who is dying of breast cancer that metastasized to bone.  In distress, I once asked our (mutual) radiation oncologist, if you know where breast cancer is likely to metastasize, why don’t you test for it?  To make a long answer short, the answer was, “It wouldn’t do any good.”  Our methods of detection are primitive, and methods of treatment are worse.   

But I have to tell you, it positively insults me to the core to have politicians trying to tell me that the government wants to kill me.  It’s almost too ignorant to dignify with a comment.  If you care so much, give some money to the NIH for cancer research.  Oh wait, that’s a government agency (Government bad, Tarzan good.)  Okay then, give it to the American Cancer Society.  But your grandstanding is definitely not working for me.