Thursday, December 16, 2004

Cancer Survivor

(First, a technical note. I changed the format of my blog so that you don't have to have a blog on blogspot to comment. Until Greg F. told me he did, I didn't realize it was set that way. So now I think anyone can post any way, even anonymously.)

The American Cancer Society says that I'm a cancer survivor from the day of my diagnosis. Since the day of my diagnosis was the first day I thought of myself as having cancer, I didn't personally think of myself as a survivor. Pretty much those first weeks, I couldn't even bring myself to think of myself as sick. That felt a bit like fraud, like a I was preying on people's sympathies inappropriately. I had no symptoms, and as subsequent tests would prove I was physically very very healthy (except for that pesky lymphoma thing) I felt more as if I was pre-sick. In addition, what I have is highly curable.

Some people use the term 'cancer survivor' to include family of the person with the disease. Which seems in one sense a little flaky--Bob isn't going to die of cancer even if I do. But in another sense, seems not so inappropriate. I mentioned in an earlier entry that Bob and I picked up Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's Our Cancer Year. It's a comic book by the people who were the subject of the film American Splendor (which along with Lost in Translation was one of the best movies of 2003.) The comic book, which was written jointly by both Pekar and Brabner, shows how while physically the chemo was horrible on Pekar, in other ways, it was almost as horrible for Brabner, who became ill at times herself under the stress. I have felt from the day I got my diagnosis that Bob has had a terrific strain put on him. His parents both died of cancer. And to have his wife diagnosed with it--well, it must feel a little like deja vu all over again.

So I don't feel like a cancer survivor. But I can understand the idea that everyone who is diagnosed with cancer is one. In some ways it feels a little like that American thing of support groups and let's be all-inclusive. But if you define a survivor as someone who is in remission, than someone like me, who will have a fairly easy time of it, will be a survivor when my treatment meant I never spent the night in the hospital and may never have had to miss a day of work, if I worked nine to five. While someone else, maybe with multiple myeloma, who is alive after five years and is still receiving treatment, who is looking for clinical trials, and has had life-threatening infections and crises and who is actively working to survive in a way I will hopefully never have to, would not be a survivor.

I am a little troubled by this survivor business. There is something odd about our culture and people perceived as victims. I read someone (and I wish I could remember who and where) who pointed out that the popular symbol of the Vietnam War is the P.O.W. I don't know if I completely agree with that. I remember the Vietnam War and there are a lot of symbols for me. But it is true that we tend to elevate victimhood to some special status. Elie Wiesel said that surviving the Holocaust did not make a person better, but the wise figure in the bad made for TV movie or even the bad Hollywood movie (like, say Driving Miss Daisy) is always the homeless guy, the holocaust survivor or the black guy who retains his dignity despite racism. But the popular conception that anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger flies in the face of all wisdom. If a heart attack doesn't kill you, it still does damage your heart muscle and it does not make you stronger. Now maybe you decide to exercise, eat better, stop smoking and lose twenty pounds and you may end up healthier overall, but that's despite the heart attack. You could just as easily lie around after the heart attack feeling sorry for yourself. Or the heart attack could be so severe you're a cardiac invalid and basically there's not a lot you can do. Maybe being the victim of something will be the catalyst that makes someone decide to better there life, maybe it won't. The one thing you can be sure of is that victimhood will make them in some way, for some period of time, powerless.

Hodgkins hasn't yet made me do much of anything. And until I had my first treatment, I hadn't even survived anything, unless you count two C.T. scans, a chest x-ray, a pulmonary function test, a P.E.T. Scan, an echocardiogram and three blood tests. While they were sometimes interesting and sometimes mildly uncomfortable, I never felt as if my life had been threatened or I had survived anything. I guess I could have had an allergic reaction to the substance they inject to provide contrast on the C.T. Scan. Truthfully, I've had workouts that were harder to survive than any test I've had.

But I like being a survivor. I am grateful for the way people treat me, even if I don't deserve it. For years, if someone had cancer they were often treated as if they were somehow contaminated. Unclean. I'd just as soon not be Bagger Vance, but it's a lot better to be Bagger Vance than it is to be Typhoid Mary.

But being elevated to a kind of secular sainthood plays into all of my character weaknesses. It allows me to be lazy and unreliable about stuff because, hey, what can someone say? So my tendancies to watch too much daytime TV and decide to eat out rather than cook and wash dishes (among other more egregious vices) threaten to go completely unchecked.

6 Comments:

Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Very interesting points. I recently underwent major surgery for cancer, and I can absolutely attest that the experience was harder on my wife than it was on me. I had an often painful, but oddly passive experience: once the doctor and I settled on a course of action, it was like riding the flume on a Disney ride: no twist or turn involved any decision on my part. I showed up at the hospital on the given date, having undertaken the preparations I was told to do, and went through the experience. No decision-making at all, and when you're too nauseous or weak to move, nobody expects anything of you.

While my dear wife Pamela had to do a great deal (she has a demanding job; we have two kids). She also had to worry about becoming a widow, as I did not. Her life was full of difficult choices, hard to decide and grueling to carry out. She still doesn't accept that the past two months were worse on her than on me, but it's absolutely true.

I also find it hard to think of myself as a "Cancer Survivor." How about "Hopeful Future Cancer Survivor"?

December 16, 2004 10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, just because you have cancer doesn't mean you can't clean the kitchen.

- bob

December 16, 2004 2:15 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Bob wasn't going to post that, but I made him.

December 16, 2004 2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was happy to see that you had started a blog, but what a bummer of a reason for doing so.

You take care. Wishing you as rapid and as thorough recovery as possible.

--Trey

December 16, 2004 5:31 PM  
Blogger Responsible Artist said...

I have some thoughts on survivors that come from being the child of one and seeing the importance of having a name for her experience.

Words have power that we can master by giving a name to suffering that might seem otherwise all-powerful.

There ought to be a name for the families of survivors of all catastrophic events, but I'm sure all the people who are good at thinking those up are writing political speeches and too busy.

Leslie

December 17, 2004 11:13 AM  
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