by Emy Koopman
1. The truth about cancer is that the word alone scares you. This is why you seldom think about cancer until you have it. Once you do, you will repeat the word in your head, endlessly, until it sinks in. It never does.
You may find yourself thinking, “I have cancer” at the most random moments and in the most random places. Grocery shopping, a festival, a meeting. “I have cancer.” There’s a slight fear you will suddenly blurt it out. You may actually blurt it out when someone who doesn’t know yet asks, “So how are you?”
2. The truth about cancer is that you have to tell people about it. Then they will call and send cards and ask, “Can I do anything?” You may fantasize about asking them to do crazy things. Pray for me, you want to tell the non-religious ones. Bring me some ice cream, you want to tell those who live far away. Buy me a dog and then walk it for me. Go to the washroom for me, take all the swims I cannot take. Or you know what would really help? If you could talk to all these doctors for me. You never actually ask for crazy things, because things are crazy enough as they are.
3. The truth about cancer is that you will appreciate the calls and flowery get well-cards and offers to help, even if that means you won’t have a second to not think about cancer. You might even appreciate the card that tells you that this is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Because one of the things worse than having cancer is having cancer and nobody cares about it.
4. The truth about cancer is that you are very likely to know people who got it before you. This does not prepare you in any way.
5. The truth about cancer is that you really don’t expect to get it before you are fifty. (After you’ve turned fifty, you probably still don’t expect it. But I wouldn’t know, I have twenty years to go before I’m fifty.)
6. The truth about cancer is that you especially don’t expect it if you don’t smoke.
7. The truth about getting cancer when you do not and have never smoked is that it makes you want to start smoking.
8. But the truth about cancer is that as long as you still stand a chance, you are more likely to start bargaining with any omnipotent power around. You will be nicer to people, you will exercise more, you will eat more carrots, you will even eat the overpriced yuppie-superfoods you don’t believe in. Quinoa salad with goji berries, chia seeds, and cacao nibs, yes please.
9. The truth about cancer is it is not a punishment for anything you ate or failed to eat or that you did or did not do. Even smoking.
10. The truth about cancer is that even though you may understand that it’s not a punishment for anything you did or failed to do, you desperately want to hear what caused it — particularly what you did to cause it, since you still assume that you are the master of your own body.
11. The truth about cancer is that even if the doctors can tell you a possible cause, it’s not likely to make you feel better. In my case, it was the human papilloma virus — a virus that most people get, and which most bodies can clean up by themselves. Which brings me back to: What did I do?
12. The truth about cancer is that in most cases, the doctors simply don’t know what caused it. Or why some bodies can’t get rid of the human papilloma virus. Or if my specific type of cervical cancer was caused by the virus after all.
13. The truth about cancer is that since there’s so much that we don’t know, we tend to blame people who get it for behaving in bad and unhealthy ways. (Until we get it ourselves.) As Susan Sontag explains in Illness as Metaphor (1977), we have been defense-mechanism-blaming others for their illnesses since there has been disease. In the sixteenth century, people believed that “the happy man would not get plague.”
14. The truth about cancer is, says Sontag, that it “is interpreted as, basically, a psychological event, and people are encouraged to believe that they get sick because they (unconsciously) want to, and that they can cure themselves by the mobilization of will; that they can choose not to die of the disease.” Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor while she suffered from breast cancer. She survived, but died many years later of leukemia.
15. The truth about cancer is that if it has a sense of humor, it’s a very black one.
16. The truth about cancer is that once you know you have it, you have the distinct impression of being eaten alive from the inside. “Cancer is a demonic pregnancy,” wrote Sontag, mocking the metaphors that others use for their cancer.
17. The truth about cancer is you may need some metaphors. Sontag could not do without metaphors herself (“Illness is the night-side of life…”). “Demonic pregnancy” is a painfully accurate metaphor for cervical cancer.
18. The truth about being eaten alive from the inside is that it may not hurt at all, not in the beginning at least, not until the doctors start trying to cure you. But without the doctors, there’d eventually be nothing left of you.
19. The truth about cancer is that you will need to find at least one person who cares enough to hold your hand through all of it.
20. The truth about cancer is that you feel the need to joke about it, preferably to the person holding your hand. I joked about the pretty blonde female gynecologist-in-training announcing she would have to basically feel me up.
21. The truth about joking about cancer is that it makes most people without cancer feel uncomfortable.
22. The truth about cancer is that as long as you stand a chance, you can joke about it.
23. The truth about cancer is that you are not in a story, although you may sometimes think you are. You are not in Love Story, Love Life, Turkish Delight or The Fault in Our Stars. Nor are you in some cinematic tragedy with Richard Gere. This means you stand a better chance than you would had you been in a story, since fictional cancer patients tend to be girlfriends who need to die for the protagonists to have their sad, deep, life-altering experience.
24. The truth about cancer is that it increasingly doesn’t have to end with death.
25. The truth about cancer is you’ll be thinking about death all the way through.
26. The truth about cancer is that once you have had it, how can you ever trust your body again?
27. The truth about cancer is that if it does not end with death, it never really ends. You’ll be seeing doctors for years, perhaps for as long as you live. You’ll need them to mediate between you and your body; they will scan your treacherous body over and over to tell you whether it is acting up again.
28. The truth about cancer is that insofar as there is a narrative, the never-ending one with all the doctors and the jokes and the subdued body, is the one to be preferred.
29. But the truth about cancer is that you hardly ever get to hear that truth.
Photo by Yale Rosen