There is a funny picture a friend of mine sent me that shows a vast ocean being struck by six lightning bolts at exactly the same moment. The photograph captures the strikes hitting six different spots on the water. Beneath the photo is the caption: “Fuck those particular six fish!”
It’s easy to think of the disasters of life as specific and directed. It is also easy to think of the many graces as sparse and given to others instead of us, passing over us in abundance. But when we are able to reflect from above our misery, we know this is not true.
Comic Tig Notaro talks about this in her own life. She was recently diagnosed with double breast cancer, while at the same time her career is taking off. Life, like people, is rarely one thing. She introduces her new CD called “LIVE” (spelled L-I-V-E rhymes with “give”) – by announcing at the start she has cancer, thank you. I feel great. Thank you. Thus addressing the very first thing a cancer patient must address when faced with a diagnosis: how do I tell others? Do I NOT tell others and keep a quiet, dark secret? Do I wear a T-shirt with a message? Do I write a letter to the closest people in my life? Do I blurt it out at the bus stop, or take out a full page ad? Or do I do a stand-up comedy act and announce it? Where do I go with this sort of information? Is there an etiquette for this?
My life has been pretty good, I’ve had my share of knocks like anyone else, but when I tell someone the story of my cancer I think, “Wow, what a poor schmuck! Guy can’t buy a break!” But in fact, all I’ve had are breaks.
Lately though it feels like the universe is compelled to send down its six lightning bolts at me, yet at the same time I am blessed. How do I hold in tension these opposite realities and not lose faith? Or worse, the opposite: to not become so naïve as to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds?
A number of weeks ago there was a large manila envelope in my mailbox. My sister’s name was on the return address. I brought it inside and opened it. Inside that envelope was a black hooded sweatshirt with the words “STRONGER THAN CANCER” in neon yellow lettering on the front. She and her daughter raised money for American Cancer and participated in fundraiser in my honor. And I was honored.
We live in a culture that applauds positive expectations for nearly everything, especially when it comes to treating cancer. We believe like religious zealots that our faith will impact the outcome. To be honest, I don’t really know if my faith in being stronger than the disease affects the medicine. Luck comes to mind, for sure, but not confidence. Still, I have always loved the idea that we create our own reality, so I am on-board with thinking positively.
I donned the sweatshirt and it looked cool. Black. Totally fucking bad-ass black. Strike a pose and declare cancer dead, dead, dead! Fuck cancer, I thought. Fuck it! Totally! At the same time I wondered: am I stronger than cancer? Or am I just whistling past the grave yard?
What if the cancer has spread to my bones? What if it were in my lymph nodes? Worse, what if after the surgery there is still cancer remaining that will? What if I am not one of the lucky ones? What if I am NOT stronger than cancer?
There is this belief that we can out-tough cancer, or for that matter we can out-tough all the shitty things that happen to us. Am I a failure if I succumb to the cancer? The language of fighting cancer today is combative and intense but what does it say about those who fail? Are they losers? Will I be a loser if cancer takes me? Or as ESPN’s Stuart Scott said recently before himself being taken down by a rare cancer, it is not whether we live or die from cancer that determines if we beat it, but how we live our lives with it. And living with this cancer is something I am beginning to come to terms with.
There is a possibility I may never be cured, that I will not die from this. How does my relationship to this disease change then? All the side effects of the treatments, as awful and as humiliating as they are, have as their primary underlying logic the notion that life trumps them all. With surgery, radiation, chemo, and hormone treatment – a chemical castration – how will my ego morph beneath the demands of the cure?
Cancer has already whittled away my ego, how much more am I in store for? And am I any closer to enlightenment as a result? Or is everything just a wasting away until what is left is this tiny frightened boy who desperately wants to walk his two daughters down the aisle, and spoil every one of his grandchildren rotten and then give them back to their parents?
There is a dichotomy that pressurizes the air around those of us lucky enough to come down with this disease that suggests if I do not get better, I have let others down. This pressure suppresses the grief of the diagnosis. I love my sister and I love my niece more than a brand new set of matching luggage.
And have I mentioned that I really, really, really love the sweatshirt? And maybe that’s enough.
I wonder about the implied message of treating this disease as a test of one’s courage and ability to overcome and not the damned drudgery that it is. Is this bravado creating a new reality, or is it in fact masking one? For we who “fail” – what honor is there in that? How do we learn to honor the struggle and not the outcome? What sort of cool, neon-lettered shirt exists for that?