xx-My Multifocal Life

I was diagnosed with stage 3B metastatic lung cancer at the end of December 2011. After several years of chemo and scans, I’ve moved beyond the scary statistics to enjoy a “partial remission.” My graphic experiments, that strangely began with the diagnosis, help me confront the rituals and scenarios we insiders experience as habitués of Cancerland.

scanxiety - nancy k. miller
Last year, around the time I created the “scanxiety” collage, one of my tumors started to change size, which led to surgery this past January. A few months ago, a scan again showed the possible reactivation of my cancer. I won’t know what this may mean for treatment until the next scan, after Thanksgiving, but I’m hoping instead for a measurement error. Now, what I had been experiencing as minor dread though, has ramped up into sheer panic, the emotional cost of scan-to-scan existence.


After 6 months of “partial remission,” and almost five years of “progression-free survival,” I’ve learned just how partial “partial remission” can be. One of the several pulmonary nodules from the original cancer diagnosis, the “spiculated” one, has become a “hot” spot. Surgery (robotic) to remove the lesion is scheduled for January 18 at NYU hospital. After that, who knows what the story will be? I’m sad not to be going to the women’s march in D.C. That story is scary enough.


After the last appointment (June 2016), my oncologist doubled the time between scans to once every six months from every three. Almost five years later, I’ve progressed, it seems, to the happy, if ambiguous state of “partial remission” (the nodules are still visible). The change so excited me, I managed a headstand in yoga class for the first time since my diagnosis. What can be next?


Every three months I slide inside a scanner. Are my cancer nodules lighting up? Only the scanner can tell. I wait. And then we start over.


When friends learn you are in treatment for cancer, naturally they prefer not to believe it. They want to cheer you up. “But you look great!” So how can you have cancer? You probably look like yourself, though a bit worn around the edges. The compliment only makes you feel worse because it seems to deny your reality: no matter how good you may look you still have cancer.


The next time someone tells you that she has received a diagnosis for lung cancer, do not ask her whether she smoked. That may satisfy your curiosity but it implies that the patient might be responsible for her disease. Whether women have smoked or not, more women die of lung cancer than any other cancer. Ladies: stop smoking!


Chemo Brain
Most define it as a decrease in mental “sharpness”—being unable to remember certain things and having trouble finishing tasks or learning new skills. When it starts, how long it lasts, and how much trouble it causes can vary a lot. So the term “chemo brain” is not completely accurate. Still it’s what most people call it right now.
(Courtesy of the American Cancer Society)


We wait in our chairs
to hear our name called.
Some in wheel chairs,
Others with carers, canes,
oxygen tanks, or
neck braces. Soon my turn.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Waiting Room”


Bobby Baker’s spectacular Diary Drawings focus on her struggles with mental illness, notably borderline personality disorders. Here, the split experienced in her mind is figured in the split in her body. After my first year of treatment, I painted my sensation of bipolar identity directly over hers. The illness resides in my body but the suffering resides in my mind.


In the first flush of diagnosis and treatment–the so-called infusions–I made several drawings about feeling the world had been turned upside down, with me in it. More than three years later, stable, and temporarily out of treatment, I experience the same disorientation, but it’s starting to look like my life, and that’s the good news for now.