It’s a recurring theme in my poetry and what my hypochondriac-in-denial self is sure to die from, if I don’t die of a heart attack or in a car crash first.
The thought of it scares the crap out of me, turns my insides to mush, makes my throat tight. And that’s when I think of someone else having it.
At the same time, I think I romanticize it in my head. Not that there’s anything romantic about damaged cells going haywire, slowly overpowering a person’s body from the inside out; nor is there a damned thing that’s romantic about chemo or multiple surgeries or any of the other miserable things that cancer can bring. But with any serious illness, there’s inevitably a bit of “do not go gentle…rage, rage” Dylan Thomesque romanticism.
I heard a bit on the radio last week about how cancer survival rates are steadily improving. This does not stop me from imagining a mole on my shoulder is mutating or getting sick over a lump in my chest that was just a cyst.
Cancer freaks me out. I don’t drink pop anymore because of being paranoid about how the damage the acidity does & the free radicals the sugar creates. So everything is water or something with antioxidants or vitamins in it. Lots of antioxidants. Borderline obsession here. (In some nostalgic way, I feel sad that my kids probably won’t know what it’s like to down a quart of red Kool-aid in 30 seconds flat after running around outside on a summer day. I’ll make them drink, I don’t know, guava juice instead. That could get expensive. Still.)
The first person I remember dying was a classmate of mine in first grade. He was hardly there. And when he was, he got to wear his ball cap in class; he was bald from the chemo. I never really got to know him, but he was in our class picture at least. I think it was right at the end of the school year that Brian died of Leukemia.
About two and a half years later, my maternal grandmother went to the hospital. A short couple weeks later, we were at her funeral. At 59 years old, she had died of colon cancer that had spread too far before it was caught.
Not too long after that friend of the family died of a brain tumor. I think he was in his mid 30’s.
A few months back, a close friend was dealing with a cancer scare. The worst part about it for me was that I had no idea how to “be there for her.” I had no clue what to say or do. Any time the thought came up, I felt like retching. Other people have “survivor stories” to share, but for me, “cancer” means “death.” Even if it doesn’t.
Tonight at church, I found out someone who means a great deal to me & my family, someone who is a key reason why we live in the city we do, is going in for surgery on Wednesday to have a tumor removed from his colon. There are also spots on the liver that need to be checked out. The whole scenario is too eerily similar to my grandmother’s story. I haven’t been right since church.
until our work is done?”
~ missionary Ruth Thompson
as quoted by Ellen Vaughn
in her book, Time Peace