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Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.


If you were diagnosed with breast cancer today, I can almost guarantee that within the week, you will be blamed for having done something to cause it. Just as we have heard people respond to news of a mugging, “What was he doing in that part of town at night?” or that because of what she chose to wear, a woman acquiesced to rape, you will be asked if you didn’t go for your regular mammograms or perform monthly self-exams or you may even be accused of “allowing” so much stress in your life, as though your character is to blame. Is it because we are so afraid of those things beyond our control that we feel compelled to attribute some cause to a deadly hurricane, a random act of violence, a tumor.  Day 25 of the WEGO Health Activist Writers Monthly Challenge has me pondering what I have learned since being diagnosed with cancer. While I have learned much about mammograms and mastectomy, tumors and Tamoxifen, pathology reports and patience, the most unsettling lesson has been that which Arthur W. Frank asserts in The Will of the Body:

 ~ the healthy want to believe that disease does not ‘just happen.’ They want to believe that they control their health and that they have earned it. Those who have cancer must have done something wrong, which the healthy can then avoid. The sick person must have participated in sickness by choosing to have a cancer personality. Otherwise illness is an intolerable reminder of how risky life is.

Consider this. If cancer happened to your best friend, then doesn’t that mean it could happen to you too? Aren’t you every bit as vulnerable?  And isn’t it infinitely more appealing to believe that you are not, that you are different, and therefore protected? Otherwise, it is just a matter of chance, and we are no farther forward than those Ancient Greeks who blamed disease on an imbalance of bodily fluids, the four “humors” and The Fates for our destiny.

“These are Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos,
and they give mortals their share of good and evil.” ~ Hesiod

I wonder if the ancient Greeks lived a little easier, because they knew their destinies had already been decided, the thread of their lives controlled by the three Fates – Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.  Envision the three gathered around a spinning wheel. Clotho, a maiden, upon visiting a newborn baby, spins out a single shimmering thread of life, then the more matronly Lachesis, measures it, casts its lot, and finally, Atropos, a crone, cuts it with “her abhorred shears.”  I imagine these three each taking their turn at manipulating the thread of my own life, predetermining its milestones, the very stuff of my destiny. I imagine Lachesis measuring out the various stages of my womanhood, deciding when and where and how things will happen between birth and death. For some reason or no reason, she added a breast cancer diagnosis. Right in the middle of my life. Right when I least expected it to happen to me, when I most expected it to happen to some other woman, someone who had missed her mammograms or who had a family history, someone “destined” for cancer.  “It’s just not fair!” “Why me?”

This draws me back to the first time I read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Since cancer came to call, unannounced, I frequently return to the stories and poems that have shaped me. I settled into the story, as most readers easily do, anticipating, like the villagers of its bucolic setting, the annual Lottery Day. Unlike the villagers, however, I did not realize, they would be drawing lots to determine who would die that day, so I fully engaged with them, until the scapegoat was identified. By then, there is nothing anyone can do to save her from this fate. She will die that day, stoned to death. We know not why. Her angry screams of “‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right'” and the final horror of the story

 … and then they were upon her.

Reminding me again of Seamus Heaney’s poor scapegoat.

It makes no sense. Like a cancer diagnosis makes no sense.  Just like Shirley Jackson’s villagers, I was safe until, like Tessie Hutchinson, my number came up. No family history, three clear mammograms, healthy, and fit. It mattered not. As far as I am concerned, and until I know more, I will attribute to my cancer what Peter Teeley describes as

. . . the ultimate quirk of fate, an unfortunate convergence of a genetic error and an environmental insult.

I have finally stopped blaming myself, even if others haven’t, and accepting the truth that no woman wants to hear, that she is the 1 out of every 8 women at risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. In the 1960s, the lifetime risk was 1 in 20. Although I know the statistic means that if all women were to live until the age of 85, 1 in 8 would develop breast cancer, I still cannot help wondering about the fate of the eight random women standing in line with me at the grocery store, or sitting around a table at a conference with me.

I drew Shirley Jackson’s chit of paper marked with the black spot – “cancer.” Perhaps it should have been a pink ribbon. Such is my lot. What then of my fate? What else might Lachesis have in store for me, before Atropos snaps “enough?” Is there enough time for us to distract her with pink ribbons and endless races toward a cure? Enough time for us to distract consumers with inaccurate labeling on the products we use every day? Enough time to lobby the government to make policy changes? Do we have enough time, enough sheer will to shift the breast cancer conversation away from early detection and cure, towards prevention and cause. Are enough of us confronting its reality with appropriate science in our respective villages? Are we willing to bring to an end the pattern of stereotyping, scapegoating, blaming, and shaming those assailed by cancer?

I hope so, because Atropos is already sharpening her shears.