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.

Cancer Gadfly: What’s God Got To Do With It?

I was mulling over Oliver Sacks’s mellow meditation on his terminal cancer diagnosis, when Jimmy Carter came out with his cancer story. (Curiously, both illnesses caused by melanoma.)
The one, a secular Jew from an Orthodox Jewish background, the other a born-again Christian, both look serenely on how cancer will―or may―end their lives. Carter, at 90, is explicit about his fearless attitude toward death: “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes. I do have a deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for.”

Sacks, 82, equally at ease, references what religious feeling means to him by invoking his memories of the Sabbath, though not as a matter of belief.

I envy their serenity, notably Sacks’s by virtue of common ancestral roots, though as a woman with cancer but no nostalgia about the Jewish Sabbath, I can’t go there. Celebration of the day of rest ended with my grandparents, and I have put nothing in its place.

Cancer makes me mad, and God is no help at all.
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On the same page as the coverage of Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis, a devastating article reports on the now debatable merits of mastectomy for women diagnosed with D.C.I.S. breast cancer. “It now appears that treatment [surgery] may make no difference in their outcomes.” Wow. The findings of the study are subject to debate, but treatment through surgery, now common, may well end up being rethought to dramatic conclusions.

I do not envy the women who have undergone the surgery, perhaps needlessly, it now appears. If I had, I’m not sure I could have waded through the waffling in the report without exploding with rage. But even minus the personal experience, there’s plenty of bad news about the disease and how it affects women for me to be riled about.

In The New York Times of Sunday August 23, 2015: I read the obituaries of three notable women, including the brilliant Svetlana Boym, whom I knew slightly, dead of cancer at 56. The other women, equally accomplished in their fields, also died of cancer at relatively young ages―young relative to me, at my ever-advancing age―and the ripe old ages of Sacks and Carter.

Too many women, some friends, some unmet, are dying of cancer. The attitude toward death from cancer (and other life-annihilating diseases) I admire has best been expressed by Simone de Beauvoir. It comes at the end of her memoir, A Very Easy Death, perhaps the first memoir to deal with witnessing the death of a loved one from cancer. Beauvoir writes after witnessing her mother’s death at almost 80:

Cancer, thrombosis, pneumonia: it is as violent and unforeseen as an engine stopping in the middle of the sky. All of us must die: but for each death is an accident and, even if we know it and consent to it, an unjustifiable violation.

I know it and I do not consent.