Tag Archives: books

Cancer? I laughed so hard I cried.

I’ve been reading a lot about cancer lately. As in, a lot more than usual. More on this later. For now, I just want to take a moment here to publicly profess my love for Tania Katan. I’ll admit, I was a little put off by the cupcake on the cover of her memoir, My One Night Stand With Cancer, when I picked it up alongside Geralyn Lucas’ Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy (which I’ll feign to reserve judgement on, as I’ve not yet read it).

But Tania. Katan. Kicks. Ass. Jewish, queer, BRCA-positive, comic, writer, two time breast cancer survivor (at 21 and 31). And she’s turned it into a one-woman show: Saving Tania’s Privates. Trailer:

I love women with cancer. I love funny women. Funny women with cancer…amazing.

Which is why I’m sort of enamored with this girl–author of the blog Cancer is Hilarious and the forthcoming “world’s awesomest comic book,” Terminally Illin’.


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“How are you?” *punchface*

   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.

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15 July 2009: the Lord preserves the young ones

The sick cloud of the final chemo—I can hardly write or fathom the date. Barely able to function in this sick, spinning state. Unable to speak coherently to my mother—having caught me in the library, demanding a date to book my return—a suggestion I mooted yesterday as an alternative to my father’s coming here for my surgery, but now I’m unsure as to whether it is an entirely coherent idea and cannot be asked to consider it now. Everything is overwhelming.

Last night: sitting by an open window with lotioned feet, alone, reading de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. A brown-red leaf had blown in through the window—made me feel alive and sad.

Yesterday I stumbled across Toru Dutt’s The Diary of Mademoiselle d’Arvers in the Wantage Public Library. Strange and fascinating, this young and sadly fated Indian woman writing French, her character’s deep and desperate fear of death, the clinging to conjectured concepts of marital and maternal love—and the author herself dead of consumption at twenty-one. Everything in the book clings to youth as salvation, yet admits the futility of such thinking.

“I have great faith in youth,” the doctor says—

but Marguerite’s frightful prophetic dreams; the recurring song, the buried bride—all that Ophelia-like sad youth and chastity—and her pathetic question: “The Lord preserves the young ones: he will preserve me, won’t he, my friend?”

All the time having known, from her dream of her husband with “the face of Death,” that “When the trees will flower again, I will no longer be there; I will be lying under the cold grass.”

The Epilogue sadly woven with Psalm CXVI:

I love the Lord, because he has heard
my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompass me;
The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered disress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I beseech thee, save my life!’

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord preserves the simple;
When I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my Soul, to your rest;
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
For thou hast delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling;
I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living…

—& how cruel to have this, a supplication against her own fate. And for me to read it, somehow still believing in the sanctity of youth and its preservation, that beseeching for lifesaving is so tempting—

I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living

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23 June 2009: a cry for connection

Awash again with chemo after Dr. S’s U-turn in treatment (a standoff in his office yesterday, his defensiveness and awkwardness and my ever-present frustration and anger)–decision to go ahead with the final two chemo treatments with a view to mastectomy in early August. An awful six days that led up to this: quarrelling with K., bad sex, wanting to distract myself, desperate for intimacy and left ultimately with more and more evenings crying into pillows pathetically. Frustrated that all of this heartache and uncertainty could have been avoided with a little clarity and concern from the hospital. A biopsy date’s still undecided; more and more of this last-minute news. Like the biopsy’s done under general anesthetic and requires an overnight hospital stay. By the way. But what else to do but plug on with the meantime?

I’ve just read Sontag’s early journals–her intensity, beauty, brilliance–at that age, having so surpassed me intellectually/professionally/in experience, in range and depth and meaning of experience. I do wish I were allowed more access to her mind in them–that the journalling were not so fragmentary.

She says:
“In the journal I do not express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself…it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather–in many cases–offers an alternative to it.”
“The writer is in love with himself…and makes his books out of that meeting and that violence.”
“To write you have to allow yourself to be the person that you don’t want to be (of all the people that you are).”

I’ve ordered Illness as Metaphor — an egotistical interest, I guess, in the meanings of my own illness (or lack of menaing). Like the search for & disappointment with Sedgwick’s book–a cry for connection.

In the waiting room yesterday, reread Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill:

“All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane–smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comforting and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.”

–pre-empting, perhaps, all the piss and shit in modernism.

I see myself this way: as gazing through the pane/pain of the body. Even as my hand cramps here. It’s something I have always found difficult to imagine about writers, prose writers particularly–how they manage to sit there, inside themselves, and produce–how many times distracted by this restlessness I always seem to have? By hunger and malaise and lethargy and the body’s desire to move, pace, ignore the dreadful submission to the immobile mind…

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peeping over parapets

Two things today:

“…no wonder one peeps over the parapet into an inviting abyss”


“…deserves great respect, having preferred the beauty of death to the ugliness of life.”

-Nabokov, Pale Fire

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to die will be an awfully big adventure

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4 May 2009: A posthumous existence

Briefly at least there was the fantasy of escape, of brilliance and meaning. Yesterday we bought lottery tickets and dreamt up delusions of what we’d do with the winnings–travel, and study, and open an English pub in Michigan. My disappointment at other numbers was such that I even felt wronged by it–because why can I draw the impossible odds of having cancer at twenty-four, but not win the lottery? This sick injustice: and why, and why, and why…

So I wait to be poisoned again, or worse, to be told that there is no point in poisoning me, but that I must be sectioned surgically into diseased and not (yet) diseased pieces.

How I wish I’d gone away. But it’s more than that–it’s wishing I were some other self, one who would have been brave enough.

The same restless frustration of wasted days. Have begun reading The Grapes of Wrath, fiction of dust and dead pigs. Staring listlessly out the window at the English countryside, flames of green against an ever-gray sky. There’s always a radio on; the whole place reverberates with words, all incomprehensible. I feed pages of the travel section into the fire, places I will never go to up in smoke with colour photos. I touch my bald head and fear myself. Then spend a long stretch of time in the shower with fantasies–choosing flowers for my wedding, naming my children, my lectures, decorating an imaginary home in my imaginary life.

It’s a familiar feeling, the desperation to do something and the sick pit of my stomach knowing I won’t. Not wanting time to continue. Sitting with my withered hyacinth and row of unread books. All this emptiness. I just want to begin to have something to stick to, to fill the time with, to progress. But I have no agenda, no plot, nothing to say. And filling the time is not a problem, somehow. It goes by effortlessly. Already four, already the end of another chemo session, of the ‘good’ days. Almost two months since diagnosis and no more meaning in it; almost a quarter of a century alive and no more meaning in that either; nothing to show. I always thought I’d have that–whatever it is–something to show for having existed.

From Keats’ last letter– 30 November 1820:

“I have a habitual feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

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