posted by Amy on Sep 4
My CT scan showed very good news. I have no new lesions, and most of the old ones are significantly smaller. My oncologist says that’s a “great” response. She also said that some of the remaining cancer tissue showing on the scan might be dead cancer cells that my body hasn’t had time to clear away yet. Things are definitely going in a good direction. I will continue to get Herceptin, but a triple dose every three weeks, and I’ll start taking an oral estrogen-blocker. Herceptin helps my own immune system deal with the cancer. A link to an explanation of how it works, including a snazzy little video, can be found here. In a few people Herceptin has produced permanent remission. One of the first people to get Herceptin, Barbara Bradfield, is still alive, with no evidence of cancer. She was treated in 1993, having been told her cancer was terminal.
I am registered for school this fall. I’ll be taking Narrative Sermon, Constructive Theology, and a doctoral level ethics course. I’m looking forward to an academic semester, studying well-defined subjects. I am especially excited about the sermon class. I took Intro to Preaching in fall 2009, and have wanted since then to learn more.
I recently read The Emperor of All Maladies; A Biography of Cancer. The book covers the human cancer experience; its diagnosis, treatment, and study, from ancient times to the present. It is a page-turner. The author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, was an oncology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital for two years. Note that he calls it a “biography.” Cancer is not an “it,” but a “who.” Cancer is not a foreign invader, it is errant human cells. For that reason, it might be a mistake to think in terms of “battling” it, or to visualize violent assaults on it. Cancer is us, only more so. It is the healing process run amok–cell growth that doesn’t get regulated properly, and cells that are supposed to die when their work is done but don’t. The book also describes the development of political and social responses to cancer. It is a complex, multifaceted, interdisciplinary topic, and Mukherjee does an admirable job of giving just enough technical explanation to be illuminating, but without losing sight of the human face of cancer. He is an excellent story teller, but first he is a doctor whose love for his patients and compassion for their suffering shines through.
Cancer can be seen as a metaphor for what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “self will run rampant.” Another name for this might be “sin.” Cancer doesn’t know, or has forgotten, that the rules for how to live are for our own good. God’s plan for humanity is summed up in the ten commandments, and in the “greatest commandment” as articulated by Jesus. “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love is, to some extent, submission. It is wanting the happiness and well being of someone else more than I want my selfish whims to be fulfilled. It is seeking after the highest good. It is the ability to trust in a Higher Power who knows better than we do what is best for us. But cancer cells take matters into their own hands. They refuse to submit. They proliferate uncontrollably. And they live on and on, quite contrary to the ordinary plan for cellular life. Our bodies were not meant to be indestructible. We were designed to wear out and die eventually. I object to running out of time right now, but I accept the inevitability of my own death in due time. The errant, confused, misguided, “sinful” cancer cells in my body do not accept that. They think they’ve found a way around the rules, but of course they haven’t. If they get their way, they will kill me, and then they will die too.
Since cancer is human, and my cancer is part of me, only confused, mistaken, sinful, if you will, I’m trying to find a way to restrain it, both physically (with chemo, Herceptin, my daily walk, the way I eat, the way I think) and metaphorically, but without compromising my essential self. Although I do not wish to be defined by it, I can’t help but give it its due. I did not plan for this. I didn’t think I was high risk for breast cancer. I also unconsciously absorbed the public narrative that we hear most: that it’s “curable” if “caught early.” That it’s one of the “good” kinds of cancer. That it’s more like a chronic illness nowadays. All of that is in doubt right now but, more importantly, my idea of what it means to have “abundant life” has been challenged. I can no longer safely assume I’ll get four more decades of being on this plane of existence. Whether I want it to or not, cancer is reshaping my existence and the story I tell myself about life.
I listen to an affirmation that says, “I tell the cancer these things: Thank you for making me stop and pay attention. Thank you for reminding me what is truly important. You can go now.” I do not want to slide into the “tyranny of cheerfulness” that makes cancer some ennobling rite of passage that we should be glad about. That will not do. It isn’t a good thing by any stretch of the imagination. It has, admittedly, made me learn some new skills, and made me much more mindful of my blessings. But I would not wish this on my worst enemy (if I had any enemies). It’s not fair. (Life is not fair.) It’s incomprehensible, mysterious, tragic, and heart breaking.
I don’t want to leave my kids. I don’t want to miss being part of their adult lives. I have things to do, work to start and finish, more writing, more thinking, more learning, more teaching to do. More socks to knit. More bread to bake. More people to meet and love. More prayers to pray and hymns to sing. I need a strong, healthy body for all of that. I used to have that. I want it back. I feel like I was just figuring out how to live life authentically and well. I finally found my true calling. I am learning to be good to myself and love myself. I am learning where my true passions lie. My ego or false self has less and less say in how I live my life. I feel like I’m growing spiritually and intellectually. It would be a damn shame to stop now.
So I won’t stop. Just because some of the “stuff” of which my body is made has gone off in an unhelpful direction doesn’t mean I have to change who I am or what I do. I have to take the cancer as seriously as it should be taken, but no more. I put in the time getting my IV drugs. I keep a mental tally of my exercise and nutrition targets, ticking off when I hit them each day. But that leaves plenty of time for what’s truly important. And I’ve got plenty of room for improvement.