I get it. Living is deadly. The risks are huge and, in time, death is certain. So, my first question on learning I had advanced, aggressive, rare breast cancer was too obvious: “Am I going to die?”
My partner, Decker, said: “Yes.”
When we were done laughing, my next question was: “Soon?”
He said: “I hope not.”
The last question I asked my wonderful oncologist: “How will I know I’ve survived cancer?” “When you die of something else,” he said as he cheerfully discharged me from care.
Yippee. I’ve survived cancer if I die in a car accident, have a fatal heart attack, or win the Darwin Award.
If I want different answers, I have to ask different questions. Here are my replacement questions:
1. What do I fear? I survive ’til I die and not longer. All the expensive powders, pills and lifestyle secrets won’t deliver immortality. Survival is day-by-day, much like life is. Once I accept this, I can, at the same time, want to avoid and yet not fear dying.
2. Why do I want to know? It’s tempting to ask “why me” but that isn’t the right question for at least four reasons. First, there often isn’t an answer. Second, knowing “the” reason buys into blame as if I should regret my past that ’caused’ the cancer. Third, ‘why me’ makes me anxious about my actions now, when really, I’m doing the best I can. Fourth, ‘why me’ is a despairing cry for my future, as if I have no reason for optimism.
3. How can I express my authentic feelings even if they aren’t happy? Yes, cancer patients do better with positive thinking and good attitude. ‘Positive’ and ‘good’ are twin tyrannies, judging when I think negative with a bad attitude. I could suppress my authentic feelings or just accept that’s how I feel right now and it’ll change. Conflict teaches that feelings, like relationships, can change, be enriched, repair, heal.
Cancer reduced my ‘bucket’ list to three entries: do volunteer work, write publishable novel(s), and enrich my relationships. Volunteering and writing are my solitary tasks. Relationships – now that’s something I work on with others. After all, everyone still alive is a survivor like me.
I try to ignore or manage the daily risks, live a meaningful life despite those risks, and to delay the certain end. That’s my current answer to the questions for life itself.