Cancer Gadfly: Limbo

After a series of stable scans, and almost 4 years of monthly chemo, last week my cancer treatment was abruptly cancelled. No doctors, nurses, blood draws, or infusions, not, at least until the next scan, 3 months from now, delivers its verdict. Since my cancer belongs to the “treatable but incurable” variety, I’ll never be fully done with the scan-to-scan existence. Not even my eminent oncologist can say for sure whether my nodules (term of art) are dead or just playing dead. It’s cancer limbo.

Normally, limbo doesn’t have much to recommend it. My beloved Webster’s Third (circa1966) spells it out.

LimboyellowBut nothing about cancer is normal, and stable, they say, is the new good. Once you accept that, limbo starts to seem appealing. If I were the sort of person who could be happy, I would be. Believe me, I’m trying. In the meantime, however, I note that the timing of my new status couldn’t be better, under the wire for inscription in the Book of Life, and for writing my own book.

Shana Tova

Chemo Renoir

If only we lived in another century. Our rolls of fat would make us desirable and happy. You might think, as I did, that chemo would lead to weight loss, the one plus for some of us: haven’t we all seen images of cancer patients looking skeletal? Indeed, some do, notably the ones very thin to begin with. For those heavier to begin with, it means irresistible weight gain. No one seems to understand why, but when asked the answer is that they like us fat.

When I decided to stop smoking in 1980, I went to a group held at the 92nd Street Y. It wasn’t the more famous “Smokenders,” but the method was the same: ranking, counting and wrapping cigarettes, cutting back as you went along. At the beginning of the first meeting, the leader announced the following in response to questions about what to expect: Some people will lose weight (eye roll), some will gain, and some will stay the same. I knew immediately to which category I’d belong. Within a week of stopping, I had guessed right: twelve lifelong pounds. Thanks to chemo, I’m now subject to the same karma, and learning to dress like a tent.

When I see slender young women smoking in the street, or smell smoke on my students’ papers, I want to urge them to stop. I want to hand out little note cards with typed messages, the way feminist artist Adrian Piper used to, in relation to racism, with lines that say something like: “Dear Friend/You may not realize this but smoking often causes life-threatening disease.” But I know they will shrug and think as I did when their age: “It won’t happen to me. And besides, I don’t want to dress like a tent.”

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Cancer Gadfly: My Envyometer

There’s lots of writing about cancer―memoirs, graphic and prose, blogs, narratological and anthropological studies, science reporting. Most of the writing is bad, by which I mean overly cheerful about outcomes, dull and cliché-ridden (my pet peeves), but in some cases my envyometer starts going wild: Oh this is so good (true to my experience, dark and savage), I wish I had written it myself.

In the category of recent fabulous cancer writers and cartoonists: Miriam Engelberg, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person; Susan Gubar, Memoir of a De-bulked Woman (and her columns in the New York Times); Lochlann Jain, Malignant; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Dialogue on Love (and her essays and columns in Mamm). There are other superb memoirs but I’m not looking to create a bibliography. These are twenty-first century texts (except for Eve’s in 1999), and cancerography is changing along with the new drugs―in particular, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Writer Jenny Diski is publishing her memoir now by installment in the London Review of Books.

waiting roomEDITsmallNaturally, some things about the illness don’t change. One of them is the waiting room. My friend Jay Prosser, living in England, sends me clippings of Diski’s memoir as it appears. I don’t have a subscription to the LRB, and so I’m dependent on Jay’s excellent clipping service. The memoir seems mainly focused on Diski’s cancer―very much like mine, late-stage lung―and her grouchy persona inspires me to increased bitterness. Unfortunately, even with comparable staging, so many variations within a given cancer exist that it’s rare to find someone having exactly the same treatment. Diski, for example, has undergone radiation and I haven’t (yet). Still, I recognize myself in her weariness and fatigue, impatience with being a patient.

Sometimes the most dispiriting aspect of cancer treatment is time spent in the oncology waiting room. Diski’s seems more depressing than mine―at hers you have to wait for your number to be called―like the line at the fish counter at Zabar’s (my analogy, not hers). But in key ways, the experience is overwhelmingly similar. Here’s a passage from her February 5, 2005 installment in which Diski describes the setting where she watches for her number.

You began to recognize faces and played the new guessing game: which one has the cancer? It wasn’t always easy to tell. What was clear was the distinction between those of us who were having ‘curative’ radiotherapy and those who weren’t long for the world and were having it to help with pain management. Some of the latter arrived in beds pushed by porters, patients all of them grey of face and still, never looking about them at their surroundings. Others more mobile, came having been delivered by volunteer drivers and sat grimly with various wounds and scars from surgery, breathing heavily, none of them looking around at the other patients waiting. We―the less ill ones―stole glances at these patients, those on their last legs or whose legs no longer held them up. Even the most buoyant and cheery patient in the radiotherapy waiting room must have seen the mirror the bedridden held up for us.

And so the distinction, clear at the start, between those undergoing treatments that in theory will prolong life and those for whom the game is up, finally doesn’t hold. Unless you are very lucky―who knows, you might be―while you are there you can’t escape the prognosis that one day you will be waiting in the place of those beyond hope.