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Time Toxicity: A personal reflection on cancer diagnosis

By Roberto C. Bellido

Last summer had a great feeling in Pittsburgh, with a fabulous atmosphere, colorful flowers, and an overall positive vibe to enjoy during my frequent bike rides that sometimes started before dawn and always ended after sunset.
During the last week of summer, I got invited by my colleagues to give a short speech about sharing our work on the development of a network platform to share removed tissue from operating rooms for the good of science. After the event, I spent some time with the ladies of 412 Thrive, a group of women coming together to fight cancer.
Those casual conversations were deep, and that is how I first learned about diagnosis, (I saw the 'diagnosis look' in their eyes, both eyebrows halfway up and an innocent, vulnerable, surprised expression), then I learned about treatment (the 'going-through-surgery' face I still can’t describe), I learned about side effects, and surveillance as the final stage only the survivors get to experience, as a constant fear that cancer could come back.
The event had a profound impact on me. It took a few days for me to stop walking in these women’s shoes, thinking about their families and how hard it must have been for them to fight for their lives bravely. I was resolved even more to make our technology come to life to fulfill its purpose for these women and their families.
Two months later, I was answering questions from a beautiful, angry-faced nurse that went something like:

-Smoke Tobacco?
-Vaping or using CBD oil?
Ok, you are ready to see Dr. Goodlooking [not his actual name]. You can wait in the procedure room ahead of you.
In the procedure room ahead of me, I got to ask questions about a pink patch in my skin, got an electrical current through the tip of my nose, and finally, they took a biopsy from a mass on my right cheek, just to confirm it was not cancer.
Next Wednesday at noon, I got a call from Dr. Goodlooking saying the results of my biopsy came back with bad news: “carcinoma” was my type of cancer. I saw myself in the mirror and found my eyebrows halfway up, and my eyes with an innocent, vulnerable, surprised expression.
I was in "the game." I was going to go through “the process” myself. I was going to go through surgery, and I had to make an appointment soon. I was extraordinarily fortunate, as there was a last-minute cancellation, and they were able to schedule my surgery appointment for the next day. I would not have to live another day holding my breath.
Before the weekend, I was already on my way home with a big white patch on my right cheek. I waited for a few days before taking it off. My surgeon prescribed me no pills, no chemotherapy, and no radiotherapy. Only to go home, and don't forget to use sunscreen regularly, as my type of carcinoma could reoccur.
I thought everything was fine right before I called home. While waiting for the beeps to connect me to my family overseas, I passed by the mirror. At that point, I felt as though I was punched in the chest.
I saw myself as a young boy, hoping my father would survive cancer. I saw my daughter. I felt a void growing from my stomach and invading my body, my apartment, and the entire universe.
What are the odds I would be diagnosed with a cancer while developing software to empower cancer patients? What is the significance?
We are building de-bi technology with patients and for patients, because we are all patients. We do it for ourselves, for our loved ones, for each other-- and my resolve to create something important and valuable is now imbued with the urgency of flesh and blood. For me, realizing our vision can't come fast enough.

Jan 11, 2023


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de-bi, co. is working with the University of Pittsburgh to explore commercialization of the technology related to this project. Find out more at de-bi, co.