I wish I could paint you as a villain, as so many others have. I wish I could wear the F*$& CANCER shirts and personify myself as a WARRIOR and pretend that cancer is an adversary that can be conquered if you just try hard enough, truly believe, and stay positive. But Cancer, you are not that villain. You are, after all, comprised of my very own cells. Cells that can’t seem to calm down or stop making copies upon copies of themselves. You are smart, Cancer. You have outsmarted Adriamycin and Cytoxan, Abraxane and atezolizumab, Lynparza, sacituzimab govitecan, Fruquintinib, Xeloda, radiation, and even surgery. We have thrown our smartest cancer research at you, and still, you come back. Just when we think we may have seen the last of you, there you are—a lung opacity or a liver lesion or an enlarged lymph node. You manage to get around the roadblocks. Tenacious, you are, cancer. Maybe even a bit like me.
You have stripped me down to my core, Cancer. That 34-year-old girl with long blond hair and blue eyes that could see nothing but blue skies and possibilities is gone. I hardly recognize that person anymore. There she is, holding a brand-new baby girl, thinking about losing baby weight and wondering how to get rid of that c-section skin pouch, and then there she is again—no hair, no eyelashes, no eyebrows—but determined to “beat cancer.” Determined to beat you, Cancer. That girl with the long blond hair had to disappear, so this new one could exist. This girl with the scars across her chest, with the port along her collarbone. This new girl must care less about what people think about her appearance, and more about how she’s going to come up with enough energy to give her kids a bath at the end of the day. This new girl cares about whether the drugs are working. Whether she will see her five-year-old go to kindergarten. She doesn’t care about the way she looks in form-fitting dresses (well, maybe she does a tiny bit).
You have taught me a few things, Cancer. Certainly, I have learned on an intimate level that “everyone has their own cross to bear” but you have also taught me compassion for myself. When I am in bed shivering with a fever and liver pain, finally—perhaps for the first time in a lifetime of working hard and being ambitious and always having something to do—you have taught me to be still, Cancer. You have taught me that sometimes what the body really needs is rest. Rest is not weakness. Rest is not sloth. Rest is survival. Maybe the zen thing would be to say I am grateful for my cancer. I am grateful for my suffering and grateful for who I have become. And don’t get me wrong, I do like who I am today. I feel strong and grounded and have priorities and a perspective I would never have otherwise. Sure, I acknowledge that. But grateful? Hell no. Cancer, I am not grateful for your presence in my life. I resent you. I curse you. I am on my knees sobbing, screaming, praying to the universe or anyone who can hear me, for just a few more years. Just a few more good scans.
So, I guess, in all that, I want to say that I acknowledge you, Cancer. I see you. I see that you are not a villain or anything close to a person at all. You are just a genetic message that has gone haywire. You are something that my DNA never learned to clean up. I don’t think we should give you so much power, Cancer. I think we should do to Cancer, what we do to our most reviled enemies—play loud music, do things that make us happy, wear things that make us feel beautiful, laugh with our friends, and reclaim every ounce of our own very-much-alive lives. Let’s not slap Cancer in the face or scream obscenities or wear hot pink anti-cancer shirts. Instead let’s roll our eyes, toss our hair, check in for our next chemo, and move on with our lives the best way we know how (or in the words of Lizzo – “I do my hair toss, check my nails, baby how you feelin’? Feeling good as hell!”).
Cancer, let me make this clear, you don’t hold power over me. I repeat (to myself, multiple times a day) “you do not hold power over me.” You. Do not. Hold power. Over. Me.
Stage 4 Breast Cancer
* * *
There’s one thing I will say about you. You don’t care. You don’t care that we had two-year-old and five-month-old babies when you first showed up. You don’t care about me, or my family, or the damage you leave behind in my wife’s body. You don’t care that I sometimes cry in the shower or in the car while I drive the kids to daycare. You don’t care if I wake up early, if I ride the exercise bike, if I work hard, if I try to do all the right things. You don’t care if it’s Monday or Saturday, if there’s a global pandemic going on, if we have checked the mail, or paid our bills. You don’t care if I am clean-shaven, how many times I wear my Bethany’s Fight Club T Shirt, or how hard we try to keep it all together. No matter what, you are still there. You are unrelenting.
When the medication seems to be working, you push through. You have your objective (to divide unhealthy cells), and you achieve it again and again. I envy your indomitable spirit. How you can’t be suppressed; can’t be starved out. You are worse (or better?) than a cockroach in the survival game—you just keep coming back. I wish I felt that power—to keep going and to rise above every challenge—to do it again and again. I wish I felt that confidence in my own abilities. Perhaps, instead of thinking about what other people think, worrying about my 401(k), wondering if there is going to be a housing bubble, perhaps I should be more like you: intentional, unrelenting, and constantly focused.
But can I be cancer? Could “being like cancer” ever be perceived as something good? What would it mean to think more like “cancer”? Perhaps there is something to be learned from all this pain, this stress, this anguish. Maybe cancer has taught me to love the ones in my life with cancer-like intensity. I will never stop loving. There may be things going on in the world that I cannot control, but none of it can stop my love. My love spreads like cancer. It doesn’t care about the situation or the “why”—it just barrels on through. It is “uncontrolled proliferation.”
I hope my love can spread to those impacted by cancer. I hope those people can feel loved and know they are not alone. If you are out there and have cancer or know someone with cancer, you have my love. Be like cancer and don’t care. Don’t care who it is or how it is, spread your love. Cancer, I care, and I am love. Let us be even more generous, insistent, and unrelenting with our love, even more unrelenting than cancer. Most importantly, always keep coming back.
Bethany’s Partner and Primary Caregiver