A question a cancer patient can’t answer.
The problem with providing answers or “updates” is that our conditions are mysteries to us too. We don’t know what’s couched in our bodies, or where, or when it will rear up again. People want to add their own neat ending to the cancer narrative: “but you’re ok now, right?” Most often meaning: “but you have hair.”
How am I? I don’t know. In inexplicable pain, mostly. I might have uterine cancer. My ribs and chest and lungs ache a lot these days; my cancer might have metastasized and I might die before I’m thirty.
I also might be fine.
So in response, I just say “fine.”
Recently I had to explain to my boyfriend that chances of recurrance do not decrease by year–that chance of recurrence spikes at year 5 post-treatment. Also that metastasis is The End. Also that when I go to the doctor, it’s to monitor for a second primary cancer in the left breast, not to monitor for metastasis. That you can’t monitor with blood tests or continual scans. That there’s no benefit to finding it “early.” That you can’t find it “early” anyway. He didn’t know these things. I felt like I’d punched him in the face. I may as well have.
But the reality is too much to bear. It’s easier to believe you’re living in a permanent state of ineffectual hypochondria, and of course you will go on, forever, forever.
There’s no cure for cancer.
If I found out I couldn’t have children, I wouldn’t want to live.
If I knew I was going to die within the next five years, ie. before finishing my Ph.D., what would I do about it? Probably nothing. What could I? But part of me wants to know, because hope can be an embarrassing thing, and I’d rather get it done with.
The New York Times Book Review recently ran a piece on the book The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. Excerpt:
The oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 B.C. The hieroglyphics record a probable case of breast cancer: “a bulging tumor . . . like touching a ball of wrappings.” Under “treatment,” the scribe concludes: “none.”
In Mukherjee’s words: “dying, even more than death, defines the illness.”
The other day I was reaching up on a high pile of books and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying fell down and hit me in the face. I’ve never read it. I feel like I don’t have to now. I know what dying feels like. Like a punch in the face.