Sometimes it feels like the universe is a really unfair place. There are a lot of little things that can make us feel this way. For instance, I bought some new running shoes earlier this year, and started going to the gym pretty regularly. I felt pretty good about it, and so I decided to start training for a 5K. But during my first real training session, I tweaked both of my Achilles tendons, and I haven’t been able to run for 5 months. What gives, universe!? I try to do something good for myself, and you decide to smite me down? I thought we were cool. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, my injury is a very minor concern, and one of the least egregious ways that the unfairness of the world reveals itself. I realize this, and I swear that I was only whining for effect.
Some of the crueler examples of injustice in the universe involve negative side effects from treatments for debilitating diseases. I think one of the best known instances of this is chemotherapy, which is essentially a scorched earth approach to fighting cancer. We all probably know someone who has lost their hair from chemotherapy, but there are far more insidious consequences as well. A recent study showed that the effects of chemotherapy are especially harmful to children, and can even damage their hearts, leaving them permanently weakened. The damage is treatable, but may not be apparent for several years after it actually happens, and by then the treatments aren’t as effective. This new study offers a way to detect the damage more quickly than previous tools, but it doesn’t really soften the fact that chemotherapy may save kids from the immediate threat of cancer by causing long-term damage to their hearts.
Another recent study showed that treatments for Parkinson’s disease can cause patients to develop addictions to drugs, including crack cocaine. How could this happen? Parkinson’s disease is caused by the degeneration of parts of the brain that are involved in producing and regulating dopamine. We know that dopamine is important for experiencing pleasure, as well as drug addiction. The medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease work by increasing dopamine levels in the brain, and so side effects often include excessive pleasure-seeking behavior, like hypersexuality and drug abuse. In this article, doctors describe two men who started smoking crack cocaine for the first time in their lives after starting treatment for Parkinson’s disease, and a third case of a man who relapsed in his recovery from crack cocaine addiction after starting the same treatment regimen. The first two men in the paper quit smoking crack as soon as they went off the specific medication, but the third man refused to give it up.
So chemotherapy destroys kids’ hearts, and Parkinson’s disease medications cause patients to smoke crack. Is there a positive message to take home from all of this? I think it’s that we really need to appreciate when things are going well in our lives, to not sweat the small stuff, and to realize that almost everything qualifies as small stuff compared to what the people in these studies have gone through. Sorry to be a downer, but there really isn’t a bright side to this one - sometimes the universe is just really unfair.
Photo credit: Rebecca Daugherty