Lesson 2: Make friends with your cancer

Ahem.  Picture, if you will, Bill Murray as Nick the Lounge Singer singing the following:

Happy Cancerversary to me,
Happy Cancerversary to me,
Happy Cancerversary to me-eeeeeeeeeee,
Happy Cancerversary tooooooooooooooooooooo me!!!!

It has been one year since I lay in bed at 2 am unable to sleep (perimenopause, am I right?) and thought, “Hmmm, I haven’t done a self-breast exam in a while.”  That was followed by, “Huh, I don’t think that’s supposed to feel like that,” and — one year ago today — a trip to the family doctor and a biopsy the next day, and the big reveal that this is was not the benign lump scare that so many of my friends have had, it was the real deal.

One strange thing about breast cancer, unlike some cancers, is that you can have no symptoms, can feel absolutely fine, when the doctors tell you that your life is in peril.  So how do you make sense of this unseen, unknowable threat? In Memoir of a Debulked Woman, Susan Gubar describes the legion of metaphors for what lurks within the body:

Despite Susan Sontag’s admonition against illness metaphors, images insist on creeping back. “Ovarian cancer is like a cockroach, defying an arsenal of poisons,” the fashion editor Liz Tiberus declared about her sense of infestation.  Systemic, cancer can morph from a cockroach to an astrological crustacean to an insane avenger…. Christina Middlebrook explains that the shifty and mobile crab-cancer “never takes the direct path, preferring to move sideways and furtively….

The heroine in Gail Godwin’s novel The Good Husband pictures her ovarian cancer as a “gargoyle” munching on her internal organs.  To Katherine Russell Rich, cancer becomes “a panther, voracious but willing to bide its time,” but also “a cellular part of you turned wild, ungovernable….” A cankerworm, eel, embryo, or cockroach; a wilding twin, bully, emperor, beast, assassin, or demon, cancer strengthens itself at the expense of the weakened and unsuspecting human being whom it attacks and within whom it lodges to gain strength.

Eesh, is it any wonder that I found solace binge watching Stranger Things?

One of the first things that you hear when you tell people that you have cancer is to “fight hard”; war is probably the most common metaphor for the cancer experience.  And, sure, if you’re a doctor it makes sense, as you’re going to use “everything in your arsenal” to “defeat the enemy.”  But what if you’re not a warrior by nature, and what if you don’t want your body to be a battleground?  What if critiquing militaristic narratives is kind of your thing? What if someone tells you to fight, and your  first instinct is, “Can we just … not?”  I could not go to war with my body. I found it unbearable to walk around holding my enemy within my body, right next to my heart.

In a few places, I read about people attributing a less venal attitude to their cancer.   One woman imagined her cancer as “a bumbling, confused lout who postured a lot but hung around the home.”  In Life over Cancer, Keith Block recalls a man with prostate cancer who would talk to “his little cancer” every day, offering it love and acceptance in exchange for staying small and contained.

A pathologist I know provided the image above to help me understand what was going on inside of me.  Look at the large, unruly nuclei in the rapidly dividing cells, disorganized, trying but unable to form breast ducts and other proper tissue structures.  It dawned on me that my cancer was just a collection of wayward cells trying their hardest to live and grow.  They didn’t know that they were overstepping sensible limits and threatening the very terrain in which they had taken root.  I felt towards them the way that I felt about some of my more challenging students from my days as a teacher: You’re making things hard for me,  and you’re making things hard for you, but I can see that you’re just trying to get by here and that you have no evil intent.

These metaphors matter because it’s hard to find a sense of equanimity and grace when you feel that you are under constant attack.  In Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life, David Servan-Schreiber argues that the research that shows that feelings of persistent stress inhibits the immune system’s normal mechanisms for identifying and destroying cancer cells.  Rats who were implanted with cancer cells and made to feel helpless when subjected to random electric shocks were half as likely to fight off their cancer as rats who were empowered with a lever to reduce their electric shocks.  I’ll take that lever now, thanks.

For my cancerversary I got an awesome gift – an MRI and a CT scan showing that my cancer is stable and tiny.  With Stage IV, stable = WINNING.  What were once active tumors are now small lesions or smudges on the scans that may be dead cancer cells or inflammation, or may be small, contained tumors.  We don’t know exactly what the remaining cancer cells are doing, whether they are dying off or plotting their next move.  I like to think that they are mollified, enervated, kicking back on their little malignant couch, watching Netflix.

Once again, I give thanks for being one of “the lucky ones,” for the time being.  Have I made friends with my cancer?  A year ago I was curled up in a fetal position in a surgeon’s exam room, physically unable to face the truth of my body.  Now I sit calmly waiting to hear the results of the latest scan.  I can share good news: “My incurable cancer is barely detectable!” with only the slightest trace of irony or despair.  And I know that if bad news comes my way, I can face it with courage and strength and love, as so many others have done.  After all, illness is an essential human experience.  As Arthur Frank wrote in At the Will of the Body,

The ill have already fulfilled their responsibility by being ill.  The question is whether the rest of us can be responsible enough to see and hear what illness is, which ultimately means seeing and hearing what life is.  Being alive is a dual responsibility: to our shared frailty, on the one hand, and to all we can create, on the other.  The mutual responsibilities of the ill to express and the healthy to hear meet in the recognition that our creativity depends on our frailty.  Life without illness would not just be incomplete, it would be impossible.  

Have I made friends with my cancer?  Not entirely, but I know who the enemy is.  It’s not illness, and it’s not death.  The enemy is shame.  It is judgment.  The enemy is the voice that tells you that your fragile life lacks meaning and dignity.

Lately I’ve been reading Nina Riggs’ beautiful new memoir The Bright Hour, about her year after being diagnosed with breast cancer.  A poet and mother of two young boys, she makes the experience vivid and poignant and memorable.  Nina was not one of the lucky ones.  One night early in the year, when her husband said he couldn’t wait for things to get back to ‘normal,’ she responded with fierce determination: “I have to love these days in the same way I love any other.  There might not be a ‘normal’ from here on out…. These days are days…. We choose how to hold them.  Good night.”