There are many things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy—untreatable depression, chronic back pain, estrangement. Cancer, at least the kind that comes and goes, is not one of them. I often say that I am glad to have had cancer. Given the choice, though I didn’t know it at the time, I would now choose cancer over another year of good, though largely unappreciated, health.
That’s an outrageous thing to say but it’s true. Edward agrees (despite his compulsion to take the opposite view from mine whenever possible). We felt this way, both of us coming to it independently, long before I had written a book, by the way. The high of being published, while thrilling, is not quite enough to justify cancer. And we both are quick to say that this opinion is only possible because I got better quickly. Had I been one of the cases diagnosed too late or had a cancer that resisted all treatment and defied all surgery…
But that’s not what happened. I got better. About two months after I found the lump, my oncologist and my surgeon agreed that my tumor was getting smaller. Two weeks later, it was smaller and softer. Two weeks after that, about half way through chemo, it was half its original size. By the time I finished all eight cycles, Susie Eder, my nurse at UCSF could not feel the tumor with her fingers. Just a tiny pea of cancer remained, a centimeter at most, detectable only by ultrasound.
So I was in the war but not for long and I didn’t see much action. I wear the uniform of a veteran, I have scars, kids look up to me, but I didn’t lose anything, except maybe a bit of naivete. Truth is, I got more out than I put in. You won’t believe me if you haven’t been there. You’ll think I’m being modest or brave or plucky. But if you’ve been through your own bout with disease, you know just what I mean. I hope you do, anyway.
When I was growing up, my mother must’ve said Make Yourself Useful a thousand times, mostly in reference to clearing the table or hanging up wet towels or bringing hamburger buns out to my dad so he can toast them on the grill. I’ve come to believe that that is our highest state – being useful. There’s where crisis comes in. It gives us our big chance.
We’re usually on the outside of crisis. When you become the patient, the epicenter, (I feel strongly that) you must accept help. You owe it to your neighbors and your family and your friends at the office to let them bring you a pie you won’t eat or send you a book you won’t read or knit you a beret you wouldn’t wear to get the mail. More than you probably need the help, they need to help you. We all need ways to lose focus on ourselves, forget our own hunger and aches, our own ambitions and niggling to dos, to forget where we were end and another begins, to lose that sense of division. We want, on the most fundamental level, to make ourselves useful. Fortunately, that’s what illness wants too. It wants to redeem and repair and enlarge us all. It wants to tie us all together and increase our dependence on one another. It wants to reveal the affluence of compassion that is always there, just usually hidden or obscured. As Rilke said, it wants to create harmony from shrieking.
Everyone has a story of crisis—about a barrier that fell, a line that disappeared, an acquaintance who became a confidante. But you and I both know, it’s hard to get there – to that sacred space—when you’re driving carpool to the baseball game in Alameda that might be called for rain and you’ve left your hot coffee on the counter because you ran back in to get your kid’s glove even though you promised yourself you were gonna stop saving him and start exposing him to natural consequences. That’s a world that does not make us bigger; that’s the every day world that makes us feel insignificant and peripheral, even extraneous. The world of illness is singular; everyone matters there and no one ever forgets that. I suspect that’s why we sometimes hover around the edges of affliction, talking about the latest catastrophe at pick up or drop off, reading memoirs, watching 17 seasons of ER, Because that’s where our humanity is. And that’s how we remember that the bodies we live in—the bodies that are astonishing and resilient but still fragile and flawed and easily smashed to pieces—eventually breakdown, and so it is that we remember that there is no time for nonsense and we must get busy with loving each other better. Now.