When I started setting up this blog, I had lots of ideas for topics I might want to post about. Sometime later, when I hadn’t yet got around to posting anything, I was diagnosed with cancer.
I decided quickly that I wouldn’t post about it, and correctly anticipated that others would inquire as to whether I would. I’ve since then been crafting my answer to their next question, “Why not?”
The first thing that occurred to me is that it’s such an obvious choice of topic, which is reason enough itself to decline. Second, it’s just too tailormade for heart-tugging and sympathy-engendering, leading to many obvious responses from others as well. “There but for the grace of god go I,” and all that. Third, of course the topic is interesting to me in rather specific ways, but outside of the easy melodrama, it’s hard for me to believe it’s that interesting to others. And even if it were, I would like to think it’s not the most interesting thing about me.
In the meantime, while I haven’t written a straight narrative about the experience, related themes were clearly touched on in a short fable (Tunnel) and a song (Best Laid Plans) I wrote some months later. So, not to worry – it’s not that I’m in the dreaded Denial.
I also noticed that several of those ideas I’d intended to write about became tinged with an added poignancy in light of this new shadow hovering over my days and dreams. I can hardly contemplate them without freshly intensified emotion that is still working its way out.
They say everybody deals with the emotion of this in their own way. For me, it didn’t radically change my outlook on life, and it didn’t feel like a ‘wake-up’ call – just the next territory to explore.
An aspect of the experience that writer Christopher Hitchens noted after his diagnosis was in what he considered the misapplication of the term ‘battle.’ He said undergoing chemotherapy made him feel profoundly passive. During my radiation treatments, that notion came back to me often. I understand the need to fight in an important sense, but in certain necessarily motionless medical moments, I could relate to his observation viscerally.
Another visceral reaction to the diagnosis was my propensity early on for making flippant references to it, using what some would call morbid humor. “Oh well, at least I have my health,” is one of the milder ones. One friend in particular completely understood this and played along. As it happens, two weeks after one of my several surgical procedures, his home was completely gutted by fire. No one was hurt, but his family lost nearly all of their belongings. When I sent him a text expressing my sympathy and support, he replied with a smiley face, “At least I don’t have cancer.” He followed it with a serious reply noting that things can be replaced, people can’t. When I saw him again two weeks later and he asked as to my well being, I replied, “At least my house didn’t burn down.” We both laughed so hard we almost cried.
Some might find our seemingly casual comments jarring and difficult to relate to, but somehow they make perfect sense to each of us, and help us appreciate each other’s strength.
Oh – and about strength… People keep saying I’m strong. And they say it whether they see me crying or appearing stoic. I truly don’t think I’m particularly strong; I am fortunate to have a natural predisposition to treat this matter-of-factly, for the most part – no credit to me. There’s no reason I shouldn’t have become a cancer patient and someone else should. In fact, I don’t particularly feel like a cancer patient, whatever that means. I’m simply working with the data and trying to keep moving forward. Isn’t that pretty much what most of us do most of the time?
Sure, some of us rely on faith, some not so much. A friend asked me months ago, near the beginning of this shadow-path, how I might have experienced all of this differently if it had happened back when I was one of those relyers. My instant reaction was great relief that I don’t have faith now. I told her, “Oh, thank goodness that’s not a factor!” I still feel that way.
No agonizing over whether prayer will ‘work’, whether I did something to incur god’s punishment, whether he’s trying to teach me something. I have enough to concern myself with outside of all of that, as well as truly saintly friends and family (some believers, some not) helping me along.
And by the way… Nope, there’s no new bucket list. Same list as before. I’m just gonna keep doing what most of us are already doing anyway. Maybe some of us face a few more shadows than others, but as I’m sure has been observed often, shadows must mean there’s sunshine. It’s out there. I’m good.