Sketch diary: The cancer shield
(This is a sporadic series of personal ramblings about my health issues. For past entries, see Sketch Diary. It has next to nothing to do with food, so skip if you’d rather not hear me rambling on about “teh cancer”.)
As I last wrote about in April, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterus) in August 2011, and spent the rest of 2011 and much of 2012 hgoing through multiple surgeries and treatments (radiation therapy, no chemo) for it. While the system of diagnoses here in France differs from that in the U.S., it seems that my cancer was at a fairly advanced stage when it was diagnosed. I actually found out just how advanced after all of my treatments and therapies were finished, and I went for my post-treatment checkup with my ob/gyn doctor. He told me that I was ‘completely cured’, and then almost casually stated that at times, especially in the early going, he thought I was going to die. While my immediate reaction to that statement was to be aghast, if I were being totally honest it wasn’t a total surprise. At times I didn’t think I was going to make it either. (My ob/gyn is wonderful, but he has an oddball sense of humor. One time when he had to do something very painful to me, he suddenly started warbling ‘Singin’ In the Rain…I’m singing in the rain’ while he continued with the painful stuff. I didn’t know whether to giggle or kick him.)
It has been months now since my last course of radiation therapy. My slashed-up abdomen area still feels kind of stiff and weird (it took forever for the wound to finally close up - the last bit was still open 9 months after the last surgery), and I can’t get enough exercise because I can’t put any pressure on the supporting core muscles without shooting pains. And as I’ve written before all that stress on my body has turned my pre-diabetes to full blown diabetes, which is a bummer.
I also still get terribly tired. I’ve learned to go with that, and just take a nap when my body says I need one.
But despite all that, I’m doing pretty ok, and slowly but surely getting better.
I’m still the same. I was just lucky.
I’ve had people asking me whether getting cancer, and coming out on the other end alive, has changed me in some way spiritually or mentally or whatever. And you know, I can’t say that it has changed me a whole lot, even though in the early going I thought it would. I know that the standard script for cancer survivors is that they gain some sort of new perspective on life, that they start living ‘life to the fullest’, hugging their loved ones more, and so on. This seems to be a persistent belief - cancer makes you a better person. You hear it declared again and again. I’m afraid I’ve gone through no such dramatic transformation.
I still take life as it is. I don’t feel any special urgency to accomplish things extra-fast. I have plenty of days that I just dawdle away. (The fatigue factor plays a bit part here.) There are things I want to do, but I am taking my time organizing my thoughts as to what I want to do when.
And when it comes to my loved ones…I’m afraid I treat them the same as I used to. I still yell at my husband when I get mad at him, even though I am so grateful to him for his patience and loving care. I do try to stay in touch more with my mother, although that is motivated just as much as the regrets I have over not doing so with my father before he passed away last November.
I don’t think that getting through a serious illness makes one that special, or particularly brave. Most of us are selfish beings who want to keep on living after all. Surviving a fight with a major illness is just as much a matter of luck as anything else too. I was tremendously lucky: I had access to top class, inexpensive healthcare; a patient and understanding spouse; a job that let me set my own hours, even including taking time off without suffering dire consequencs.
And most of all, my cancer was diagnosed just early enough to be treatable, and it was the type of cancer that is considered to be very treatable. Just in recent years three people I respected a lot, two public figures (Steve Jobs, Satoshi Kon) and one in my family (my Uncle Isao), got a type of cancer that is not very treatable and hard to diagnose early, and didn’t make it. I am certainly not a better person than them because I made it. I am just luckier.
Of cancer and heroes
This brings me to the impetus for rambling on about cancer again - the big confession last week from promiment athlete slash cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. Cycling is a hugely popular sport here in France, both as a spectator sport and and a participatory one. We have a clear view from our house of one of the most famous stages of the Tour de France, the Mont Ventoux, and this coming May one of the stages is going to start right here in our village. Driving around in these parts on sunny days during most of the year means constantly dodging the hordes of bicyclists dressed in colorful gear.
I have a great admiration for anyone who achieves feats of physical prowess, including athletes. In order to be in the kind of condition that lets you cycle up the Mont Ventoux without killing yourself, you have to punish your body day after day to make it perform better. I love watching the Olympics for that reason. When I used to live in New York on a street that was part of the NYC Marathon course, I even passed out bananas to the runners a couple of years. (5 big bunches can go in a few minutes.)
With all of that, you’d think I would have been a big Lance Armstrong fan. But, I wasn’t - and it had little to do with the doping allegations. What made me feel uncomfortable about him was the way he seemed to use his status as a cancer survivor as a kind of shield, a halo, a perpetual Get Out of Jail Free card. Whenever someone would say or write something remotely negative about him, or imply that he was not as clean and aboveboard as he always claimed, he would pull out the Cancer Card: “I survived cancer. How DARE you question me?” (It seems that he was a very vindictive person besides.) And that’s just so - so tasteless and tacky really. He even seemed to use his foundation, Livestrong (which used to be called the Lance Armstrong Foundation) to polish his image, even if the objectives of the organization are noble. (Although they don’t really raise money for cancer research, they do help cancer patients in the U.S. get through the ordeal of treatment-related bureaucracy, which seems like a good thing. But there doesn’t seem to be much point in donating to them if you are not an American though.)
Prominent public figures who use their ‘cancer survivor’ status for PR purposes are dubious to begin with, but to use their status to cover up wrongdoings - well.
Not raising the cancer shield
I’m repeating myself here, but: cancer does not make you a saint. Surviving cancer does not make you a hero. What makes someone a hero, someone worthy of admiration, is how their lead their lives in general.
One thing I promised to myself is that I will not use my cancer as a shield and excuse. If I screw up by reneging on a promise, or letting someone down, or even committing some kind of crime, it’s not because I got cancer. It’s because I am me.
Maybe I have been changed a tiny bit by cancer after all.