Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Big Burly Joke

A few weeks ago, I came up with what I thought was a great riddle. After none of my hand-picked readers figured it out, my wife suggested I rephrase it in the form of a joke. One intrepid reader offered a good guess (Burl Ives Trio) that was not what I was looking for.

So for those of you reading this for the first time, here is an (improved?) version of the joke:

A surgeon, a pathologist and an oncologist are hiking through forest when they encounter a burly tree (shown at left). Curious by nature, they sit down to ponder their discovery. Of course, the surgeon proposes to cut open one burl. The pathologist thinks that's a good idea; she whips out her pocket microscope to examine it. The oncologist goes on about a two-hit hypothesis and proposes dumping toxic chemicals onto the tree's base. What do you call this conclave of MDs which also happens to be a name for the piece of wood being examined by the pathologist?

A Tumor Board!

I tried to tell this riddle/joke at a recent party I held at my house when I realized that a few years ago, I had actually sliced up a small burl with the intent to make a set of coasters out of them. (The slices warped, and will need additional work to make them functional.) I got some laughs, but not because of the joke. Mostly, my guests thought something about the back-story was hilarious.

This group of mostly medical professionals proceeded to hypothesize the origins of burls. We all decided burls are some sort of tumor. Perhaps it's caused by a genetic cancer, but also perhaps by insects, fungus or viral disease. (Viruses cause tumors in humans, too!) That burls often congregate in groves could support a genetic or infectious cause. But the tendency for burls to form on golf courses and orchards speaks to a traumatic origin. Maybe the burls I saw in Alaska are residual from moose antler scraping behaviors or aborted assaults by beaver?

For those out there who have never heard of the second meaning of "tumor board," you will probably not think this as funny as I did (and still do, by the way). At most hospitals, there is a special meeting of specialists every week that serves to discuss the new, complex or complicated cancer diagnoses. Since every cancer is a little bit different, and every patient is different, you can imagine there could be a very large number of approaches to cancer therapy. In an effort to provide the best care, pathologists (who have the final word on diagnosis), surgeons (who provide the important skills to remove some tumors) and oncologists (typically the doctor in most contact with the patient) all meet to present and deliberate information. This meeting is called a tumor board.

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