posted by Amy on Apr 22
Today I went in to get the infusions I get every three weeks. As someone with stage IV cancer, I will be in treatment for the rest of my life, which is likely to be shorter than if I didn’t have terminal cancer. But I’m one of the lucky ones. For most of the five years since I was diagnosed my cancer has been “stable,” though it has been necessary to keep switching up my medicines. From mid-July until late December last year I was getting one of the chemo drugs that cause hair loss. Now I’m off that, and all I get are antibodies that help my own immune system control the cancer. My hair is growing back and I have eyebrows again.
While I sat there with the IV dripping into me a young woman came by to see if I might like to be matched with a peer support person. She said she’s with an organization that matches cancer “fighters” with “survivors.” I told her I’m neither. My cancer is “incurable but treatable.” I’ve had it for five years now. I said that, under the circumstances, I’d probably be more useful as a mentor than as a “fighter.” I was polite, though, and I took a brochure. I said I’d think about it.
I try to be generous about terminology. If “survivor” meant “not dead yet,” then I’d be all for it. But it usually doesn’t mean that. It’s usually part of a narrative about having one’s life temporarily upended by a cancer diagnosis, going through a year or so of hell, and returning to normal. I am not one of those people.
And I don’t like any combat images about what someone with cancer might do in response. It’s completely inappropriate to call it a battle. I have said this before, but as God is my witness if anyone is stupid enough to publish an obituary about me saying I “lost my long battle with cancer” I will find a way to wreak some sort of vengeance from the other side. Good grief. If someone gets run over by a truck you don’t say he “lost a battle with” the truck.
One of many issues with the “battle” metaphors is the way they subtly transfer the blame to the sick person when she dies. Jumping Jehoshaphat! There is nothing surprising, out of the ordinary, or blameworthy about succumbing to a fatal illness. Don’t act surprised, or imply that the deceased had any control over that. The “fighter” metaphor gives people who haven’t received a diagnosis like this a false sense of control and security. But it won’t work.
If you get a diagnosis like the one I got it doesn’t matter how hard you “fight” or how much you want to live or how many times you “think positive thoughts.” What happens after a diagnosis like this is highly individual and completely unpredictable. A woman I know who’s done oncology social work for decades once wrote that she’s seen people die who “should” have made it, and people go into remission whose odds of doing so were so small as to be functionally zero. You just never know.
It is not a fair fight. It’s not any kind of fight. Some of my cells jumped the shark. They changed in ways that make them not die when they’re supposed to, not stop multiplying when they’re supposed to. But they mean well. They want what we all want–glory, immortality. It’s a kind of biological hubris or original sin. But they are not an enemy. They are part of me.
While we’re on the subject, April 19 was the fifth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. I was living in Boston at the time, and the news came a day later than it might have because of Patriots’ Day and the Marathon.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I can still do just about anything I want to do. I have lots of energy. I don’t have “chemobrain.” I have choices. I am loved. I am grateful for every opportunity to be with loved ones and talk with them about things that matter to me, or to them. I am alive, and grateful for that. But I’ll be 62 years old in about 10 days, older than either of my parents got to be, older than two of my siblings were when they died.
I haven’t come up with a word I like better than “survivor,” but nevertheless I don’t call myself that. Nothing can change the fact that life invariably and unavoidably ends for every one of us. As some wag somewhere put it, the interesting question is not whether there’s life after death; it’s who’s alive now, before their bodies cease to function. What I’m experiencing right now isn’t “survival.” It’s simply “living.” For now.