All things considered, I think I’ve accepted my diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer rather well. I mean, I haven’t been walking around in denial (and never had a denial phase, to tell you the truth). I’ve taken a very matter-of-fact approach to it; neither am I unrealistically optimistic nor am I fatally pessimistic. It is what it is.
And while I haven’t been dramatic in my approach to it all, there have been those moments of all-too-real clarity when I say to myself “I am dying.” Those stark moments come and go and I think I deal with them as well as I can expect. But recently I read a book that shook me a bit: Dying in Public: Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer by Sue Hendler. Hendler was a university professor at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. She found a lump in her breast in the summer of 2007 and then shared her experiences along the way in a newspaper column for the Whig-Standard in Kingston, Ontario. The book is a compilation of those columns and some unpublished work.
There was nothing particularly new in the book. That is to say, there weren’t any breakthrough treatment options and no particularly inspiring moments that were on par with a fireworks display (for me anyway). But it shook me because I can relate so closely with Sue. An educator who loved her students, she wrote about her experiences and connected with many people. She, too, faced her disease with an apparent matter-of-fact practicality. And while she doesn’t seem to have been unrealistically optimistic, she certainly looked forward to living at least a decade into the future.
We folks with metastatic disease get the whole median prognosis thing. 2.5-3 years from diagnosis, meaning about half die before, and about half die after. Now let’s translate that sentence into a graph.
“The number three still floats around in my head,” wrote Sue. “But with time, I’ve realized that it is a statistic. and only a statistic . . . And, even with the recent news of the spread of my cancer, I will continue to hope to live–and live well–into the right-hand tail of the curve.” (112)
Sue died one year later.
There is so much uncertainty in this sick game. Cancer doesn’t give a damn that my mother has already experienced the death of one child and couldn’t bear to go through this again. It doesn’t give any quarter to my sister who tells me, “I know you’ll get better.” It flips the bird at twenty years of hard work to achieve the career success that I have. And it smirks as I try to put the whole experience in perspective and make plans to deal with it.
One approach Sue took to the reality of a shortened life is to make a list of things she would never do. In it she included things like be in a committed relationship, finish a book she was writing on the history of women, sort all of the paper in her office, do a chin up, and (my favorite) “Figure certain people in my life out. Not going to happen. Doesn’t matter how many lifetimes. Some people are just too fucked up.” (116)
What is it John Lennon was to have said: “Life is what happens while you’re making plans”?
Looking at that schematic is not easy. Indeed, how can you confidently make plans when you don’t even know if you’ll have time to plan in the first place?
The answer, of course, is to just keep going. What the hell choice do we have?