Five months ago, when my first round of cancer treatment came to an end, I’d imagined that I’d inhabit one of the following stories:
1. My cancer disappears, never to return, and my life proceeds as planned with minimal damage. I’d treat the whole experience as a horrible adventure -as compensation, perhaps, it grants me the patience and fortitude to deal with life’s other vicissitudes- and I’d forever be known as a “cancer survivor”, a label that I would pretend to be embarrassed by but secretly be rather proud of. This is the universal story of going on a journey and overcoming obstacles to achieve a happy ending, which has obvious parallels to the experience of having cancer treatment- this meditation on cancer and the mythical journey describes it very well.
2. My cancer comes back, but only after a few years and in the same place as before. Certain sacrifices would have to be made to get it rid of it this time- the loss of a limb being the most likely- but get rid of it I would, plus I’d have finished my education and found a job and acquired some skills by then, and I’d make do with those to carve out the best possible existence for myself. I’d be the saintly invalid daughter, sister, cousin, aunt etc. etc. who serves as a quiet inspiration for all- the story of any number of characters in the 19th century children’s books I grew up on, like the wheelchair-bound Cousin Helen in What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge.
In these stories, the antagonist needs to behave according to a script-it needs to act, to an extent, according to the protagonist’s convenience. If the Sphinx just mauled the traveller on sight without asking any riddles and giving her a chance to prove herself there would be no journey, no more obstacles to conquer, no happy-or happy-ish- ending. No story.
My cancer didn’t follow a script-it decided to reappear at an unexpected and inconvenient time, in the most unexpected and inconvenient way, making it impossible for me to wring any sort of coherent narrative out of my experience. The first story must be discarded now, the second one heavily modified-perhaps so heavily that I might as well let go of that one too.
I may be willing to abandon telling myself stories, but other people are not, gauging from their reactions. If my experience is anything to go by, human beings cannot resist the urge, when confronted by news of misfortune and suffering, to place it in a narrative of recovery and hope. I will “come out of this”, I have been told repeatedly, even though no-one can possibly know if I will, and the evidence so far is not encouraging. (I was also told this last time, by the way. How did that prediction work out for you?) Some have added that I will emerge from this even stronger than before- my moniker for these people are “Calvin’s Dads”- in an alternate, bleaker Calvin and Hobbes universe, Calvin’s dad would be telling him that having cancer builds character.
A lot of people have also told me to “have faith”, which, since many of them also know that I’m an atheist, I find rather puzzling. I imagine that “having faith” means that if I concentrate hard enough during chemotherapy, my cancer will go away, much like how spells work in Harry Potter.
I understand this completely and I say it without any rancour because these are people I love, and I know they mean well, and I know say these things because it is hard-wired into all of us to tell stories to survive and make sense of the world-stories in which bad is cancelled out by good, suffering is balanced by redemption and treatment is followed by a cure.
(Quick PSA: you can still use the above as a future reference for things to maybe avoid saying to people who have cancer or any other life-altering illness, including-especially-the line “good things happen to good people”. Would you tell someone who’s been horribly disfigured for life in an accident that they shouldn’t worry because good things happen to good people? Also, nobody actually believes this. If they do, the first page of the day’s newspaper will prove them wrong. Additionally, if you think about it, someone has just told you that a very bad thing has happened to them, so in a way you’re also implying that they are a bad person. Just avoid using those words in that particular combination for the rest of your life and no-one will be worse off.)
Things at the hospital are both very familiar (I’ve hardly been away, after all) and unfamiliar, with a whole raft of new faces. I asked the nurse about two fellow-travellers from last year whom I hadn’t seen for a while on the ward. This was stupid of me, in a way, since there are only two possible reasons for someone to not be there. One of them is doing fine for now. The other one passed away a couple of months ago. She was roughly my age. She was brave, and strong, and kept the faith, and was a good person.
My point is that cancer is not so accommodating of our stories. Cancer upends our narratives.
The most accurate description of my situation now (and one that always makes me laugh) is from a favourite TV show, The Thick of It:
This is like The Shawshank Redemption, only with more tunnelling through shit and no fucking redemption.
I’m perfectly fine with this. I’m still pretty comfortable, and can get around, and do what I like, and I’ve stopped trying to supply reasons for everything that happens to me, which is liberating. I still love stories. But I don’t need my life to be one, for now.