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Latent Cactus Surprise

by Keighley R.

I'm a plant person, in as much as anyone on this site is a plant person.

For me, plants are the right amount of responsibility. They allow me to connect with my fellow scientists in ecological and environmental labs, and - simply - they bring me joy.

I have had this cactus for years, and, for several months now, it has carried a small, grey, fuzzy poof off its side. For the longest time, I thought it was budding and I was such a proud plant mom. But, because I almost never even look at what kind of plant I'm buying, I wasn't about to look up what was happening. Maybe it's irresponsible; I prefer to call it an adventure.

One day, I come downstairs to make coffee and stare through the window I have flanked by indoor and outdoor plants, and I notice that the grey poof that has resided on my cactus for months is gone. Instead, there is a long, trumpeting arm reaching around my cactus towards the windowpane.

I am shocked and excited and worried. What if this means the end for one of my plant babies? What if it's growing up? What do I do? As any 20-something might, I turned to social media and asked my friends and internet strangers who were almost assuredly more informed about this sort of cactus behavior than I. I was informed that, yes, this happens and, yes, my cactus was likely going to die. I was crushed. In my attempts to capture what I was convinced would be my plant's final days, I photographed this flower's progress, completely unsure what would unveil when it would open.

While it was closed, It reminded me of something sinister from the magical realms of Harry Potter or the like. When it blossomed, though, I was treated to a gorgeous, massive white flower, seemingly hollow all the way through to the cactus' body. The way it balanced atop the neighboring succulent seemed far too precarious, but I was almost too nervous to touch it for fear that it may break off. After all, it was only attached by the smallest point to the cactus. For a few days, I admired the flower, the way it turned itself towards the window, even if I rotated the pot. The delicate flutter of the petals in the draft of the A/C, turned up high to battle the Texas summer.

Then, as quickly as it started, it was over.

After preparing my ritual coffee, I turned to my plants in the window and was crushed to see the flower laying on the sill. As the standard tropes of delicate and fleeting beauty danced around my subconscious thoughts, I began to think of how interesting it was that I had lived with that little grey poof for so long, just for it to suddenly and explosively burst into this gorgeous flower.

I study cancer, specifically, recurrence and dormancy in breast cancer. Dormancy is a relatively new idea in the cancer field, but it is something that has existed in the natural studies for much longer. Animals hibernate, plants over-winter, insects slow and hide. They are all dormant in some way, yet it is only within the last few decades that dormancy and cancer have collided.

Just as my cactus has lived with its foreign, fluffy, body, people often live healthy, happy lives with potentially-cancerous masses inside them. While the masses are small and benign, they carry the potential to be spectacular. Because, as scary as it is, cancer is spectacular in the way that it thrives, dominates, and grows. While this flower caused me to fear the demise of my cactus, it too, thrived, dominated, and grew in this spectacular way.

Keighley is a 4th year PhD Candidate studying at Baylor University in Texas. She is passionate about trans-disciplinary research, science communication, and community building. To learn more about her research and science communication, visit Keighley's website or follow her on twitter ( @ScienceKeighley) or instagram (@scientifikeighley).

For a cancer survivor's Plant Love Story, see JulieAnn Villa's piece - When it comes to cancer, bulbs are better than flowers.


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