To read about people’s experiences with cancer, it seems as if no-one just ‘has’ the disease-they’re constantly ‘fighting’ or ‘battling’ it. If the ‘war’ here is meant as the one between medical science and its mysterious, capricious enemy, then the trouble with this metaphor isn’t that it’s wrong but that it’s depressingly accurate; as in an actual war, the odds are that the warrior that you imagine yourself to be isn’t a decorated general fighting at the frontline and covering herself in glory but a lowly corporal in the trenches, covered in mud and waiting for unseen forces to decide her fate. Nothing you can do personally is going to affect the outcome-you can only hope you don’t end up on the losing side.
Generally, though, what people mean when they say they are fighting cancer is that they are fighting the natural human response to it, which is to spend your days feeling angry and fearful and depressed. This is the war you wage on yourself, essentially, forcing yourself to “stay positive”. There may be people who do manage to be happy most of the time despite everything, and I salute those Pollyannas, but reader, this war was lost for me as soon as it started-the tanks rolled onto the battlefield and straight into the scrap furnace. Because if you are the sort of person who likes to take a clear-eyed view of the world, then personal misfortune is, if anything, a vindication of your worst suspicions about it. The only way I could have maintained a sunny outlook throughout all of this is if my cancer diagnosis had been accompanied by a full lobotomy (the phrase “look on the bright side” only reminds me of the ending of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when a bunch of people sing “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” while being crucified. Only the English could come up with something like this, and that is one reason I love living here.)
In any case, I find that there is a pervasive misconception that a ‘positive attitude’ can somehow help people cure their illness. This insulting, victim-blaming notion (for the flip side is that if you aren’t cured, it’s simply because you didn’t have the right attitude) has thankfully been scientifically disproven, but I would like to try and do my bit to discredit it as well. Let it be known that I spend a lot of my time feeling miserable, and if I’m cured, then that will only go to show. And if I’m not, well, a sample of one hardly proves anything.
That is not to say that I can’t put my misery in perspective. I was familiar with the work of David Rakoff from the radio show This American Life, on which he used to read his witty, caustic essays. I only became aware of his health problems, though, when he died of cancer last August, failing to overcome his second bout of the disease, the first having occurred when he was 22 years old. “Poor man,” I remember thinking to myself, unaware of this neatly executed bit of foreshadowing in the story of my life (he died of what I have now, which I sincerely hope is not more foreshadowing). He never spoke or wrote extensively about his illness- only a couple of essays and a few scattered interviews-but I find a great deal of comfort even in this limited material, in which he steers clear of histrionics and manages to be funny and mordant without being bitter. From an interview with NPR:
Writer Melissa Bank said it best: ‘The only proper answer to ‘Why me?’ is ‘Why not you?’ The universe is anarchic and doesn’t care about us, and unfortunately, there’s no greater rhyme or reason as to why it would be me. And since there is no answer as to why me, it’s not a question I feel really entitled to ask. And in so many other ways, I’m so far ahead of the game. I have access to great medical care. My general baseline health, aside from the general unpleasantness of the cancer, is great. And it’s great because I’m privileged to have great health. And I live in a country where I’m not making sneakers for a living, and I don’t live near a toxic waste dump. You can’t win all the contests and then lose at one contest and say, ‘Why am I not winning this contest as well?’ It’s random. So truthfully, again, do I wish it weren’t me? Absolutely. I still can’t make that logistic jump to thinking there’s a reason why it shouldn’t be me.
You can’t win all the contests and then lose at one contest and say, ‘Why am I not winning this contest as well?’ I should probably print this in gigantic letters on all the walls of my house. Chances are that if you’re reading this you should probably too, since you’re probably also losing some contest without realizing that you’ve won all the others-all the important ones- through sheer luck. This is the sort of ‘positive thinking’ I can get behind-not “Everything is great!” but “Everything is not as terrible as it could be!”
At the same time, he also wrote movingly about how vulnerable you can end up feeling despite yourself, in the essay “Another Shoe” from the collection Half Empty, which is a paean to pessimism (as he told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, “If you’re writing a book about how we should all look at the world in all its flinty, afflicted, dark reality, the ultimate money-where-your-mouth-is moment is ‘Oh really, Mr. Smart Guy, Mr. Negative, Mr. I Feel So Bad? Boom. Tumour.’”):
After a lot of urging myself and others to regard terrible outcomes unflinchingly, to really think on such matters and championing those among us who cannot help but do so, it turns out that, with the wolf just outside my open windows—closer at hand than I really feared he would ever get to me at this age, with his hot breath bothering the curtains—I’d rather not dwell on it, which is kind of funny, if you think about it. As for the fear that has marked a lot of this, it is bereft of larger lessons. Other than the reflexive survival instincts it triggers, avoiding being something else’s dinner, it seems completely useless. I don’t mean that as a macho preamble to the phrase “so I choose not to feel it and just go on as if I didn’t ” I mean that fear lays waste to one’s best reserves. It foments rot in my stores of grain, eats away at my timbers. If I dwell on the possibility that I might be dead by forty-seven, I can’t really find a useful therefore in that. Therefore I will train for the marathon, confess the long-unspoken torch carried for X, etc. I once joked that if I knew the world would end in one day, I’d probably just break into a bakery and eat all the éclairs I wanted. But true fear—which, luck of the draw, doesn’t ambush me as much as it might or as much as I’d thought it would—just leaves me frozen; amotivated and stunned. Dinner, in an evolutionary word.
And the last paragraph of the essay, which perfectly encapsulates the conundrum that all people living with cancer face, which is how to hope for the best whilst also preparing for the worst. It’s a little heart-breaking to read now, but it seems like he lived up to his words, since he continued to write with grace and humour until the very end:
There is just a baseline uncertainty that will need to be lived with…The assurances are momentary, at best half comforting, like being told “That’s not a man in your room. It’s just your clothes draped over the back of a chair casting a shadow, see? However, there is actually an insane, knife-wielding murderer loose in the neighborhood. G’night.”
Everybody’s got something. In the end, what choice does one really have but to understand that truth, to really take it in, and then shop for groceries, get a haircut, do one’s work; get on with the business of one’s life.
That’s the hope, anyway.”