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.

Bicycle traffic jam!

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.

Filed under:  personal sketch diary

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So happy to hear that you are going to be ok, and I do admire your attitude of making cancer survivor just one small part of your overall identity. Wishing you lots of good things ahead.

Thank you for sharing your current health status. I too am a cancer survivor, (breast cancer), but my treatment was not nearly as bad as yours. I also don't feel any dramatic transformation, although I did realize that I'm a bit vain. I miss my hair. I have learned the depth of kindness from my friends and family for which I appreciate immensely.

I hope you continue to get better and stronger.

Also, have you read the book, "Japanese Farm Food" by Nancy
Singleton Hachisu? Very informative.

Not just for the food, which has enhanced our lives, but for the down-to-earth, cut-through-the-crap attitude. You celebrate life and you criticize it at the same time. You are multifaceted, like life!

For every time my husband and I see "Live, Love, Laugh" (his brother even had it on his wedding cake!), we smile at each other and say, "Die, Hate, Cry!" Not to temp fate, but simply to counteract the one-sidedness.

I loved what you said about Les Miserables. I can't find the quote, but it was something like, "It was meh, but that just the kind of person I am." It's hard to sell you a bill of goods. We need more people like you!

Sincerely, from MN where it is -40 wind chill, Lily Winter

I enjoy that all your posts, regardless of what they are about, are always interesting and make me think differently about the topics you discuss.

Hope you keep feeling better each and every day! :)

One more voice in the grateful chorus: I'm so glad you're (getting) better, Maki. You are a strong and honorable woman, and the world is lucky to have you in it.

Maki-san, I read somewhere that the fruit of life lessons are harvested when challenges in life presents itself. So, you may not feel you are a "changed" person no, but who knows what life may in store for you and you are prepared for it because you have survived such a tough moment in your life. About Lance, I listened to his interview with Oprah, and in it, Oprah shared a story from a mother who said that she was supported reading Lance's book when her son was diagnosed with leukemia before the age of one. Even when the story is complete fantasy/fabricated, somehow some people out there can find refuge and hope. It is not all lost, after all. Everyone seems to need a hero to know that deep down inside, they already have what it takes to survive.

Wishing you all the best, Maki-san, and more food posts to come.

P.S. We just made a sukiyaki for dinner today, your recipe that you posted a while back!

I admire your honesty and centeredness. Also agree w what you wrote about Lance Armstrong. Good Luck to you in your continued healing.

Wow, am i glad to hear you made it through this illness and that you will be continuing to be a shining and sound, hugely creative and inspiring presence for us on the Internet. We are big fans of yours here in our home and we wish you lots of time and space to heal beautifully, smoothly, and peacefully. Happy Journeys! And thanks for helping to make our journeys happier, too, with your website and your book! Much aloha from us all, maggi

Thank you for sharing your cancer journey and observations with us. Please allow yourself admiration for your hard and exhausting endurance health-marathon. You seem like a mature, wise woman.

Blessings of continued healing, strength, and energy to you. <3

A very thoughtful view you have! I agree that no one should be defined by their illnesses or conditions. For years our son had multiple health issues. It bothered me when people seemed fixated on his illness vs. him. They also would label him as an asthmatic or an allergic person vs. someone who happened to have those syndromes.

Having just had a cancer scare myself, I'm so glad you are on the mend! You seem a resiliant person. I think an outlook helps a lot in how we choose to confront these situations. Best of luck.

Cancer survival is a marathon, not a sprint, and the view down the road is different. Enjoy the journey.

You may not be a hero for surviving cancer, but I admire you so much for all that you've written above !

Well said, Maki! I love your blog and am so glad that you're getting better. I bought your cookbook as soon as it was available at Kinokuniya and consult it frequently. Hugs and many blessings!

well said! I was born with a major heart-lung defect that still affects me today, but I never want it to be a shield or an excuse for my lack or success or judgement etc. I'm guilty of it at times, as it is hard when people put emphasis on my illness. Thank you for the reminder to not fall into that bad habit.

Always enjoy reading your writing - such a thoughtful post, thank you for sharing with us, love your attitude. So glad you made it through and hoping your fatigue lessens. Sending lots of good energy your way!

Hi Maki. You're admirably feisty, because you're so bloody refreshingly honest about not becoming a cancer saint. Glad you're on your way to recovery. I'm always delighted to read your writing.

Thank you for very a candid article, Maki.

A hero who considers oneself a hero is anything but. That is why I never really liked Armstrong and the whole Livestrong thing. I always got the impression when seeing him in the media that he was first and foremost promoting his own myth.

The real heroes are the ones who soldier on through adversity, not feeling sorry for oneself nor bullying others into buying into the fiction that they have created around themselves.

Like Maki.

Srsly Maki: thanks for all the great recipes and stories. Without you I wouldn't have known how to make quick cabbage pickles or to visit Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

I like your sketch diary. It's one of the most honest things I read online. Glad to hear you're doing better now :)

Right on, Maki. Of course every experience changes us somehow, not just cancer. Living through cancer does not ennoble, though it does instill the helpful habit of taking naps when we're tired. Continue to get better so we can all benefit from your reflections.

Maki-san - thank you for sharing your thoughts and I'm so glad you're getting better. Look forward to reading more of your beautiful posts, take care. xx

Thank you for sharing your feelings about cancer not changing you that much. I am also a survivor and feel the exact same way.

Many people say that cancer made them a better person, but I always say if you need cancer to make you a better person, then you must have been a pretty awful person to begin with :)

As for Lance, I live in Austin, home of Lance-mania and Livestrong. He may have been a cheater and he may be pretty douchey as a person, but he has done amazing, wonderful things by propelling Livestrong to where it is today. I hope no one loses sight of that fact because here in the States, with our abysmal healthcare system, we need all the help we can get in staying on top of our treatments and billing.

I know you said that you haven't really changed and that you're not a hero, but I still find your attitude and honesty inspiring. You are being true to yourself, and that is admirable. I just want to add though, that every once in a while, it's okay to feel bad for yourself. Those moments pass, and we are only human after all. Anyway, I'm glad you're feeling better. Thanks for updating us!

Hi this is the answer to my previous question about how you are now...well this is the on year are very inspiring...


Hi Chit, yes I'm a lot better now. Thank for asking! ^_^