I don’t know John McCain. I don’t know if he cried when he learned of his cancer diagnosis. I don’t know how he feels about expectations of him to beat it because, after all, he has proven – in the context of war – that he is a fighter: “Senator John McCain has always been a fighter. Melania and I send our thoughts and prayers to Senator McCain, Cindy, and their entire family. Get well soon,” says Donald Trump. From Barack Obama, “John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.” McCain’s demonstrated toughness, his heroism in Vietnam, has absolutely no bearing on how cancer will treat him. It’s enough to be handed a devastating diagnosis without also being told you can beat it. What if you don’t? Does that mean you didn’t battle hard enough? Moxie alone is simply no match for the disease.
Cancer. When I heard it got me, I cried as though I had just found out that someone dear to me had died. Inconsolable at first, I assumed those great fat tears flowed from the sheer fright of a disease that has no cure. Five years later, I know my sorrow was more about wondering how to proceed toward the half-century mark without the woman I used to be. Oddly, nobody else seemed to notice she had vanished. Not even the nurse who delivered the news to me in much the same way as my mother might call to tell me a childhood friend or a distant relative has died – reverent, hushed, kindly.
Even today, if I shut my eyes, I can just discern the shadow of my former self, standing up and walking out the door, mortally offended by that nice Breast Cancer Navigator informing my husband and me that I had cancer.
Conspiratorial and quiet, reminiscent of whispered speculations about a cause of death when all the evidence points to hard living, on and on she talked. Her carefully chosen words filled my ears with fear, even as she stressed that what I was hearing that day in her dimly-lit office was definitely not a death sentence. Nonetheless, I heard a crack. The sound of a life altered that even so many months and years later, has me wondering how I should respond to Muriel Rukeyser‘s question:
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
Is it because it is invisible, like the actor who, having exited the stage, falls silent and slips behind the scenes until the encore? Or is it the treatment that belies cancer’s smugness, mine so cleverly concealed in 1,825 innocent-looking pills that I promised to consume over the next five years? Whatever it is, I soon found that many of my friends and acquaintances were skilled in deftly averting their eyes from mine and not talking about it. In retrospect, what ailed me was easy to avoid – the persistent and gnawing dread, brief but boiling hot flashes due to a chemical menopause caused by Tamoxifen, aching joints, nausea, and fatigue. All these can swoop below the radar in a way that a head made vulnerable and bald by chemotherapy cannot. What had I expected? The details of my pathology report on a perpetual crawl across the bottom of the CNN screen so no one would forget about me? My name spelled out in pink lights across the front of a Safeway supermarket in October? No. I craved good old-fashioned sympathy, long phone conversations into the night, and endless cups of tea. I did not want people telling me I was brave or in their prayers or that cancer was a gift or that it was part of God’s plan for me or that there must have been something – something – I did or didn’t do that contributed to the cancer that was crashing in on me and turning everything upside down, inside out.
I wanted home. I wanted my mother, but she was too far away. I wanted to hear the comforting colloquialisms that pour from rainy, rural Northern Ireland, phrases that remain elusive in the desert southwest of these United States, its mountains baking in the predictable sunshine. Home brings the language I know and love, like the words of a neighbor from my childhood that leaped from a Facebook page: “It must be so difficult to cope with that burden when you are so far from your mammy. I’m sure she is all you want at the minute, as always, when trouble visits your door.” When trouble visits your door … when I hear that phrase, I am instantly 12 years old again, in the house where I grew up, stretched out on the good settee, trying to concentrate on a new Enid Blyton book rather than the blistering chicken pox my mother tried to soothe with great chunks of cotton wool saturated in Calamine lotion.
For me and the woman I used to be, cancer became the scariest thing in my life, because, like every scary thing that actually happens, it had never crossed my mind. Nor had the death of my husband exactly two years following my diagnosis. Given this trauma, you would think I no longer waste precious minutes fretting over things that most likely will never happen – but I do.
So cancer happened, and I wanted everyone to feel as sorry for me as I did for myself. I wanted to howl about the unfairness of it all at a no-holds-barred pity party. I did not want to be a warrior with a pink ribbon tattoo. I could not have predicted the impact of the let-down, placated by people I consider my friends who told me I had no need to worry because I was strong and a fighter and someone to whom God would give only as much as I could handle. I was told I should be grateful for my good fortune because I had the “good cancer.” I was on the pig’s back, beyond lucky to be the beneficiary of what they deemed a fine consolation prize – what they considered a tummy tuck and a boob job following the amputation and reconstruction of the right breast I wish I still had. I recall a lunch time conversation during which a colleague congratulated me on still looking like myself – “No one would ever know you had cancer” – and five minutes later someone who barely knew me chided me when she found out I wasn’t “doing chemo,” as if it were something akin to laundry or a pile of dishes or sit-ups. There was the woman who told me to basically shut up and just get on with it. She told me to “put my big girl panties on,” with a nod to God because, you know, I could handle what He had given me. There were others who have still to utter the word C-A-N-C-E-R in my presence, let alone inquire about how I have fared with it all. I make excuses for them, guilty that I make them uncomfortable, showing up in the world every day, reminding them that cancer gets people like the person I used to be, people like them. I envy their good health. More guilt.
So the dance continues. If I don’t mention it, you won’t mention it, and maybe it will go away. Or maybe it won’t, and then what will we do? Will we swallow the words we are too scared to say and instead spit out tired cliches about doing battle and platitudes about the power of positive thinking? Trickier, I suspect, to ignore the recurrence of cancer, to feign indifference to it, once it has been roused from its slumber. What do you do, especially now that they have bestowed the ‘survivor’ mantle upon you?
According to the National Cancer Survivors Day website:
a “survivor” as anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life. National Cancer Survivors Day affords your community an opportunity to demonstrate that it has an active, productive cancer survivor population.
Was I surviving before I discovered the lump myself? Is that how we would describe my living – my life – before it was officially declared “surviving?” Is that the label we would ascribe to it, after pronouncing as cancer, the disease that flourished, undetected for as many as 7 – 10 years, defying four mammograms, hiding in tissue no one had bothered to advise me was dense? Or is there another word for what I was doing before the diagnosis? A better word? Was I formerly a more active and productive member of the population? Trying to find the right word, I stumbled across a jarring Times of India headline Gutsy fighters took on cancer, and won. Took on? Took on Cancer? Won? Those who have been killed by cancer, are they “less gutsy” than the rest of us? Losers?
Of all the words that no longer connote for me what they once did, “survivor” is the one that leaves me entirely flummoxed. As I have mused previously, the diagnosis has forever changed certain words for me – “staging” I no longer immediately associate with the theater; “fog” I am more apt to attach to a state of cognitive loss rather than one of Van Morrison’s misty mornings or that cloud that often obscures Pacific Coast Highway on a summertime road trip; and, “cure” of course is no longer the idiomatic “hair of the dog that bit you” but a terribly elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon. Even “sentinel,” which was reserved, until cancer came calling, for a lonely cormorant perched on a post in the shallow waters of sleepy Morro Bay. I now know sentinel as the first node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor. Until one of my post-surgery appointments, “infusion” was something done to transform olive oil into a gourmet gift. But because I had turned left instead of right upon leaving my oncologist’s office, I missed the exit and instead found myself on the threshold of the infusion suite, a room I didn’t even know was there. Feeling as though I had intruded, I fled. But not before I had registered a row of faces of people sicker than I. In one microscopic moment, I made eye contact with a woman and wondered if perhaps she was cold because, as I turned away, I noted a quilt on her lap. I turned away and thought of Shakespeare’s “enter fleeing” stage direction. Ashamed. Guilty.
For a year or two, I told myself I was beginning to make some kind of order out of my life since cancer. Or my life with cancer. Or my surviving cancer. I was learning to make room for it, to make sense of it no less. Well, that was a bit premature, wasn’t it? Cancer makes no sense at all.
I do not feel gutsy. Nor do I feel like a winner. Nor am I comfortable with being described as a survivor. What then? I am a cancer patient who still shows up for her scans and blood tests. Such things do not impinge on my life to the extent they would if the disease were more advanced – in other words, if it spreads. And it might. That’s just the way it is.
A profound sense of guilt accompanies this awareness. It confounds me and reminds me of growing up in Northern Ireland – at a safe distance. Except for the time when our kitchen window shook because a bomb had exploded somewhere close by, or the time a bomb exploded outside Halls Hotel. Or another time when my brother, as a new journalist, had to interview the grandmother of three little boys murdered, burned to death on July 12, 1998. Richard, Mark and Jason, just eleven, nine, and seven years old, had been asleep when a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of their home. Or that Saturday night in Belfast, when my college friend Ruth and I returned to her brother’s house where we were staying, only to find out that her car had been stolen and set ablaze as a barricade on the other side of the city. Strange that cancer has taken me back to these places so many times, and to things I haven’t thought about in years . . .
In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast, based on his interviews with the people who lived there, Tony Parker makes the unsettling but astute observation that those born and brought up in Northern Ireland have a mutual need to know, from the start, about a person’s background, so they can proceed safely in the dialogue, the longer relationship, without saying the wrong thing, “the wrong word.” The schools we attended, our last names, the way we pronounce an “H” all became clues to help establish “who we are.” “Derry” or “Londonderry?” “The Troubles,” “the struggle, or “The Irish Question?” “Ulster” or “The Six Counties?” In the country of my birth and in cancer country, I find that myth features prominently, in particular, the myth that victims have in some way, brought it upon themselves. The calendar takes on a new significance, too. We could fill a calendar with anniversaries, those of Bloody Sunday, the bombing of Omagh and Enniskillen, Internment, the Twelfth of July. Literally untouched by these, but changed nonetheless. A survivor? The images are indelible. Iconic. Father Daly waving a blood-stained white handkerchief, the carnage on Market Street in the heart of Omagh, orange sashes, bowler hats, Lambeg drums, and The Guildford Four. In the end, I suppose every day marks an anniversary of something.
On the question of language, the right words to use, there is no easy answer. Within terrorism, within cancer, and the respective wars waged against both, are words and phrases that seem to sanitize and even glamorize the suffering and pain, that hide the horror and heartbreak visited upon ordinary people going about their daily lives. I am thinking again of County Down writer, Damian Gorman whose words I rediscovered not too long ago while ruminating on the complexities of cancer, the politics of its lexicon. He describes the bombs, bullets, the “suspect incendiary devices” all too familiar in 1980s Northern Ireland as far less deadly than the “devices of detachment” its people used to distance themselves from the violence. Aware of it, yet removed from it.“I’ve come to point the finger I’m rounding on my own The decent cagey people I count myself among … We are like rows of idle hands We are like lost or mislaid plans We’re working under cover We’re making in our homes Devices of detachment As dangerous as bombs.”
Detachment is dangerous, but perhaps it is easier. Pondering the metaphors of battle that have been applied to the John McCain story, I find myself drawn back to the day before my surgery. In my mind’s eye, I see the kind radiologist who said my name looked into my eyes and said, “I’m so sorry you’re here,” right before he shot three painful injections of radioactive dye directly in and around the nipple of the right breast that would be removed the next day. I wince, even now, writing about it. But what I remember most and more than the sting of those injections is the genuine kindness of that radiologist right before he administered them, and that nothing is stronger than the human heart.
Senator McCain, “I’m so sorry you’re here.” .