So, I hear I have cancer. Were I a film character I would have written my role differently. Unfortunately I fear I am real. My cancer patient’s dilemma is one of two mistakes. 1) The mistake of thinking I am getting all better, oops! dying. . .OR 2) the mistake of thinking I am dying. Oops! Full recovery. The former is what I would call a big, big, big mistake permeated with regret and self-recriminations. The latter? Just a little slip, no hard feelings. A mere misconception. I mean there’s no actual downside to a full, sustained, spontaneous remission. Nope. None.
I see the first mistake as the one to avoid. Alas, I am in a tiny minority. A majority of people prefer mistake #1. They want me to assume my cancer, described clinically as both “aggressive” and “invasive,” as no big thang. “Think positively,” they clamor or they insist “Be positive.” Pardon my reality, but that doesn’t sound like a reasonable way to operate. I rather make my life decisions based on actual facts then run my life on fake news. Life decisions such as what to eat, where to live, who to associate with – because company sets tone and tone is key to the successful cancer survivor.
Cancer patients like me don’t wish to be around blame-the-victim types. I mean even if I smoked, (I quit in 2007) I’d rather not hear about how smoking causes cancer. Or for that matter how coffee causes cancer, or microwaves, or beer, or pretty much any other theory you’ve got to spin because now that it’s here, fully diagnosed, – my energy is better spent elsewhere. I hear cancer therapy smacks the piss out of people. I hear quite a few of the drugs cause aches and nausea. So rather than spend a minute of my precious little time hearing you tell me what caused my cancer I prefer hiking.
No one in nature blames me. Not the trees nor the wind. Besides I’m building up strength which I may need for those daunting treatments. Alone time is qualitatively different from isolation. In nature no one can hear me smirk. Or cry. Or sing out of tune. I’m free to be myself, with a full range of emotions in tact. I don’t believe in giving up my negative thinking. I say embrace darkness. After diagnosis experiencing emotional overwhelm is normal, common, and I vote ought to be socially acceptable.
Herein lies another cancer dilemma. If I tell people on the one hand that I am doing ok, you know, the PG version I tell my son and my little brother – that this thing is highly treatable I notice a certain level of irritation when people come back with “Oh Great! Nothing to worry about then?” grrr. I’m having a life altering experience here. If I go the other route, reading off the paper the actual unvarnished diagnosis then awkward moment ensues. ouch. Be careful what you wish for, Kumari. I realize my expectations are impossible. These people didn’t get a script this morning, they don’t know what to say. I’m not the slouching hero in a silver tint film noire.
A friend of mine who is dying complains that people avoid him because they figure he’s too sick to participate or if they do come round, it’s only to ask about his cancer. Blah blah blah cancer. Like he’s got nothing else on his mind. How is he doing? He’s dying. Yet he’d rather I came over with Scrabble and gossip, (seriously) with gossip at least, than more questions on his cancer. He’s had it up to here with pretending nothing is wrong, and he’s too damn conventional to let loose about what it is really like to be dying. Too bad. Life before diagnosis is long gone.
I sign up for SpaceRock Trail race “B.D.” before diagnosis. Back in July I was still making mistake number 1. I thought by signing up some magical thinking would ensure my tumor is benign. Be positive, I tell myself, act as-if. I sign on with high hopes. In August my test results reveal malignancy. I get sicker faster than I expect. In June I run 11k effortlessly and 12k often. Optimistically I enter SpaceRock as a 10k participant. In September I can barely finish 8k. October? I can hardly complete 6k. So much for positive thinking. I resent being blamed for my own illness.
Do me a favor, don’t ever push positive thinking on a cancer patient. Let ’em be.
“Positive thinking” is a curiously callous way to respond to people who have cancer. By positive thinking I don’t mean being chipper over a beautiful sunrise. I mean that icky superficial neatness. Think and grow rich? Change your mind change your health? Every day in every way things are getting better and better? That substitution of a meme where actual emotion or kind thought should go, is to wade hip deep into odious behavior.
Actual thought. I mean if you don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer, admit your shortcoming. If you’re heartfelt and vulnerable you’ll do ok. You might learn compassion or empathy or a more appropriate thing to say for next time. But whatever happens can’t possibly be as bad as what will happen when you lacquer yourself with false concern and armor yourself with platitudes. Try turning off the cell phone and making eye contact. Listen without interruption. Listen. Listen without writing your witty retort in your head. Listen intently. Your answer will be natural if not perfect.
Even though the positive thinkers might have been upset with her, I wasn’t. I wasn’t mad when Terri told me “You won’t be able to lift your arm over your head after surgery. You won’t be running.” I appreciate the information. With that in mind I decide I’d rather be eaten by a Gorn than sit around like my friend, telling people how my cancer is progressing. Even though the positive thinkers might have been upset with me (you’ll be able to run again, Kumari!) I decide against taking chances. I head out before dawn to SpaceRock intending to do as much as I can do while I can still do anything.
If I’m the main character in the movie of my making there’s not enough screen time left to dick around. If I’m wrong I’ll make a sequel. SpaceRock 2, the half marathon or something. But what if this is it? What if I’m not so special, not so different from the millions of other women who have suffered this disease? For women facing breast cancer you ought to be real while you still can. Real doesn’t always suck. Sometimes life is extraordinarily nice. Even after diagnosis I still have my moments.
I surprise myself by finishing the whole 10k. I finish 150th out of 191 male and female participants. Twenty-third in my age group. And the best part? I didn’t feel wrecked when I was done. I felt wonderful, like a star. Apparently facing reality did me some good.
Now y’all play nice.