Cancer Gadfly: Still Alive, or The Mortifications of Survival

Readers of the London Review of Books will know that Jenny Diski has been writing diary posts about her cancer for over a year. In “Who’ll be last?” (November 19, 2015), Diski reflects on the embarrassing situation of those of us who announce our forthcoming death from cancer, yet still remain alive to write about it. She cites the case of Clive James who “after telling the world five years ago that he had untreatable leukaemia, has had to apologise for not yet being dead.” And offers a quiz show challenge: “Which writer lived the longest and wrote the most columns and/or books after the announcement?” On the other hand, if cancer “were a race, the first man home…would be Oliver Sacks (announced 19 February―died 30 August.” In this race, you win by dying, quickly.

Diski is tough on the subject of cancer. To say she is unsentimental about her illness is to understate the wicked violence of her prose. She delivers details about the treatments she endures in a tone that wards off sympathy, while shocking the reader into the realpolitik of surviving with cancer thanks to innovations in modern medicine.

I enjoy reading these irascible manifestos, hard to know what to call the genre–rant, screed, complaint―writing that bears witness to the kind of suffering we’d all prefer to avoid, honest testimony, without cheerful sanitizing, more rare than you’d think. (Susan Guar’s Memoir of a Debunked Woman, Jochlann Lain’s Malignant, and Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made me a Shallower Person―sadly, Engelberg died the year her memoir appeared–are brilliant exceptions to the rule.)

Most of all, what I liked about this installment is the limning of the embarrassment of remaining alive, outliving the statistics, off the charts, fill in the cliché.

This embarrassment weighs heavily on my mind because soon I will have another scan. I’m not sure which number this is, somewhere in the double digits. Except for the diagnostic scan in December 2011, and a serious scare one year into treatment that led to a biopsy, the scans have been consistently “good.” More recently, since I’m on chemo break, the oncologist calls them “stable.” As an acquaintance in treatment now for her lung cancer likes to say, “stable is the new good.”

Each time, though, I’m convinced the scan will be bad, and when it’s not I feel I should apologize to my friends for having worried them. If dying is winning, I’m still losing, but it’s not the kind of race where you really want to finish first.