The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

The Impossibilities of Life in the Mind of Someone Healthy

by Siobhan HebronSurvivorJune 18, 2024View more posts from Siobhan Hebron

Dear Cancer,

What do I want to say to you at our ten year anniversary? Like many patients, I still remember when we were introduced in 2014 like I had selective hyperthymesia for that day. At the time I received brain tumor diagnoses of grades I, II, III, and IV, with no member of my medical team able or willing to tell me anything about my prognosis. In my desperation for something concrete, my neuro-oncologist offered that he’d be surprised if my tumor grew before ten years’ time. Somehow I knew not to put much stock in that number then, and I know that even more now. Still, as I have lived those ten years, that number has steadily loomed larger in my mind. Dear cancer, here we are. I think that’s what I want to reflect on; where I am in relation to my diagnosis, and now here at the ten-year mark, because I do feel grateful for where my lived experience of cancer has situated me in life.

Cancer and my pursuit of treatment have made me feel like an abusive lover to myself. Because that’s the thing with a brain tumor, right? It infects the organ that quite literally makes me who I am. Writing to my cancer is writing to me, to my cells that have committed a great treason against me, but they’re the cells that make me up nonetheless. They make up the body that I am and the body that I have. My irradiated, cancerous brain is the only thing that’s been my constant all these years, and it’s made my world so much bigger. In the years after being diagnosed, my fears and hopes were naive and very personal. Now, because of growing through this decade with my partner cancer, my fear is informed and my hope worldly. Cancer will show you that anything is possible, beyond what you could have ever imagined, both good and bad.

Dear cancer, as I’ve witnessed this last decade I’ve reflected a lot on radiation. I underwent radiation therapy in 2015, and the medical space is designed so that to receive radiation treatment, you need to walk downstairs or take an elevator because most radiology departments are in the basements of hospitals—the better to insulate you with, my dear. No one can accompany you; in fact, once they’ve strapped you onto the table, the technicians will leave you behind a multiply insulated door on which you can see the large black and yellow radiation warning trefoil. You’re left in a room with whirring machines that you know have been deemed unsafe for all other humans. Dear cancer, how could you not make me feel special?

I’ve found that that acquired body knowledge has given me a rich perspective over recent years, from 2019’s Chernobyl to 2023’s Oppenheimer. You might taste metal as a gustatory artifact like I did during radiation therapy and like the firefighters at Chernobyl did when they experienced acute radiation syndrome (ARS). ARS occurs if a person is exposed to more than 0.7 Grays (Gy) within a time frame of minutes. The Gray is a unit of ionizing radiation, defined as the absorption of one joule of radiation energy per kilogram of matter. I can’t tell you what that means, but I can tell you that I personally received 5.4 Gy over the course of 38 days; for comparison, the doses received by the firefighters who died were estimated to range up to 20 Gy in minutes. I watched those scenes in horror of their unleashed exposure when mine was so carefully calibrated.

Dear cancer, I think of how you’ve changed every single cell of myself. As an artist and an artist assistant, Because of Chernobyl, because of my own radiation, because of cancer, I look differently at the graphite pencils I use every day to make drawings. The incident leans on a propensity to establish fears and facts based on the presence of graphite. As Gorbachev’s character succinctly questions in the series; “this concern stems entirely from the description of a rock?” The lead chemist, Legasov: “Yes.” Who knew the material I use to make aesthetic marks could also moderate neutrons in a nuclear reactor that dictates life? It’s too simple, too inelegant that such an easily confirmable reality has unreal consequences. It’s the body’s manifestation after infection with an invisible virus. It was seeing my tumor for the first time, outlined and glowing white with contrast agent against the dark black of healthy brain tissue.

My original MRI 6/18/14 that first showed my brain tumor

I received both chemotherapy and radiation as a means of survival, but where do I situate that in myself when I know both were created as machines of war to destroy human tissue? That’s why during the very tangible process that is chemotherapy, I was tasked with not exposing or exchanging bodily fluids with another person for at least forty-eight hours—my survival was contingent on potentially becoming that dangerous to others. That was my individual experience, but we’ve since gone through a worldwide pandemic, and I’m curious: did you rethink your relationship to health? To bodies? To others’ bodies? Of theirs to yours? I’ve thought about that constantly while watching COVID-19 go from epi-, to pan-, to endemic. I think about cancer patients and the personal responsibility we often invisibly carry while being called brave by people who would not wear a mask for us. Dear cancer, I’m angry.

Dear cancer, radiation feels even more timely with its distinct intangibility. Because while I would argue COVID-19 is a completely inelegant viral agent, radiation is one of the most elegant invisible mechanisms I know. At low doses, you feel nothing, but the effect is cumulative, and that’s the insidious nature of it, as noted in the preface of Voices from Chernobyl. Most cancer patients, myself included, will tell you that radiation is “easy” compared to chemotherapy; and with no immediate or visible side effects, it feels that way. But I wonder if one day I might need therapy for a radiation-induced cancer, as I wonder about how the effects of long COVID will play out. I’m struck by how humans are such visibly dependent beings. From our daily experience with the pandemic to my own tumor being based on a visual analysis; I only wish I had a fellow student of art history looking at my tumor alongside my neuro-oncologists.

Dear cancer, I feel the parallels and interconnectivity of humanity through radiation history. I personally feel indebted to Marie Curie’s science, to the radium girls and their worker’s strife, to the mothers whose milk production was killed by the testing of the nuclear bomb given cinematic deference in Oppenheimer. Dear cancer, if we do not learn to have respect for our cellular structure at an invisible level, we are doomed.

Marie Curie

The Impossibilities of Life in the Mind of Someone Healthy

“Radium Girl” painting watches in a factory

The Impossibilities of Life in the Mind of Someone Healthy

Nevada nuclear testing site

I’ve never wanted to examine cancer from the perspective of someone dying of it; that’s not been my experience, and I feel examining cancer in such a way would be a disservice to those who have died and to those who cared for them. I always wanted to examine cancer from the perspective of someone living with it: the patient, the survivor, the traumatized, the witness. I do it to make sense of it to myself in real-time and for anyone else who has to go through life via the lens of cancer.

Dear cancer, everything feels too small as a conclusion, probably because I don’t think I, or anyone, could ever articulate one. Cancer made me see and feel just how insignificant I am. It’s a major ego check to enter the present healthcare system and to know exactly when you would have survived until in past times. But cancer’s biography, the history of patients, the history of scientific discovery, of vaccines, of questioning ideas to come up with the new and invigorate the old—that’s precisely why I don’t feel insignificant. I know I am just a thread in the larger fabric of patient history, but I also know that I could be an unseen thread in a future cloth that blankets someone else in community and comfort.

“Service can take many forms, but for the person who is seriously ill, a primary possibility for service is storytelling as an act of witness. As storytellers writers like Broyard or Diamond do not tell people how to be sick; their testimony is rather that you can be sick and remain not just in love with yourself but in love with the humanity that shares sickness as its most fundamental commonality.”

As of March 2024, my tumor remains stable and I’m grateful to every single source that enabled that to be my current reality. I think one of the most inspirational stories I’ve heard is that wolves have returned to the area around Chernobyl. At the time of the incident in 1987 the surrounding area was deemed potentially uninhabitable for hundreds of years by all manner of beings. These wolves provide a better narrative capstone than I can to the cyclical nature of health and disease.

Sources

  1. Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Dalkey Archive Press, 2005.
  2. Chernobyl. Created by Craig Mazin, HBO/Sky UK/Sister Pictures/The Mighty Mint/Word Games, 2019.
  3. Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness & Ethics. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  4. Higginbotham, Adam. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Simon & Schuster, 2019.
  5. Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Scribner Book Company, 2011.
  6. Sagal, Peter and Chris Mazin, host. The Chernobyl Podcast. HBO, 2019, https://link.chtbl.com/the-chernobyl-podcast.
  7. Solnit, Rebecca. Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West. University of California Press, 2014.

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