In preparation for an upcoming panel discussion about young adult cancer and social media, I’ve been thinking back on the motivating purpose behind my years’ worth of writing about cancer and its aftermath. This reflective process began slowly a few weeks back, and has been intensifying in recent days. My first realization: I am no kind of expert on anything. I am one person, with my own experience. Cancer may touch us all in some universal way, but it also has deeply personal and distinct repercussions for each individual who falls prey to it. Honestly, I am not sure what meaningful insight I can offer about my haphazard life as a cancer blogger. As my husband remarked about Keith Richards when his tell-all memoir came out: “If you want to know about Keith, just listen to the music. It’s all there.” In order to explain why I have persisted in this seemingly self-indulgent exercise, so long after finishing treatment, all I can really offer is every word that has preceded these.
A part of me feels I’ve long since drained the well of my cancer experience, and that the “why?” and “what?” behind it all is embedded in words already written here, or maybe even here. I just celebrated five years cancer-free. My oncologist told me last month that I’ve “graduated” – to yearly check-ups, not from Cancer U. completely. Isn’t it enough already? I have a child to raise and am gearing up to train for my first marathon. There is more to life.
There is more, but it isn’t enough already. It isn’t enough, because cancer keeps happening – hopefully not to me again (though there’s a decent chance of that) but to other young people all around me, and they are entering my life in varied and unexpected ways. Periodically, I get an email from Imerman Angels, and they put me in touch with another young woman with ovarian or some similar gynecologic cancer. A few days ago, my mother-in-law called to tell me that the wife of one of her cousins was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and to ask if I’d be willing to talk to her. So the other day, before mowing the lawn, I put on my Survivor Hat, sat on our front step, and spent almost an hour answering questions and reflecting on my own cancer journey. Here on the verge of summer 2013, five years later, cancer feels very much alive and well, occupying a central and powerful place in my consciousness.
In trying to unravel the meaning of these endless piles of words, the purpose they serve, I suddenly think about the oral tradition – how stories, repeated endlessly, are passed on, carrying meaning, providing lessons and insight for generation after generation. My story perhaps has meaning not because it is “mine,” or “about me,” but rather because it represents hope for someone else, someone at the starting line, facing the unknown. In telling this story over and over, to different people, and from different angles, I strive for humility, and universality. Every time I talk to another young woman facing ovarian cancer, I am always careful to say, “Everyone is different. Everyone has a different experience.” And it’s true. The woman I talked to yesterday seemed very concerned about being able to work through her treatment. I told her I was out of work for seven months, between surgeries and chemo, and couldn’t really have fathomed attempting to work in the condition I was in. But that was me. Whether by virtue of my naturally reclusive temperament (and perhaps the fact that I was dissatisfied with my job) or the rigorous course of treatment to which I was subjected, I in some ways needed the kind of isolation that I ended up experiencing. I needed the space – when I was feeling well enough to appreciate it – to try and understand what was happening to me. Cancer was, for me, as much about the psychic process as the physical one, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that it nearly swallowed me whole. Another person, differently disposed, undergoing a different course of treatment, will react and fight in her own unique way.
In spite of the things that make each person facing cancer unique, the common element, whether or not explicitly acknowledged, is the fear and uncertainty. Terror does not seem too strong a word. So while I may not speak openly with all of the young women I’ve come to know through cancer about our shared fear of dying young, of leaving our families or never being able to have them at all, the fact that I am still here, at this point, this far out, may just be all the tacit reassurance I can offer. It may also be what is needed most.
So why this, then? Why don’t I just plant a flag on the moon of my survivorship and be done with it? Perhaps because cancer gave me the excuse to finally be the writer I always dreamed of being. I never took writing workshops or seriously pursued writing professionally (sorry, attorney friends – brief writing doesn’t count.) But one truth about writing always stuck in my head: “Write what you know.” My brief flirtations with writing fiction always seemed to fall flat, felt false and strained. But the volumes upon volumes of journals I kept all through adolescence, and the vigorous epistolary dialogues I maintained with many friends for years and years (back when people wrote letters) – in those heaps of words, I would periodically sense a lyricism, or a truth, that felt important and real.
In the form of cancer and its attendant upheaval, I finally found a story worth telling, or at least a story that had the potential to mean something to someone outside of my own head (the curse of every devoted journal-scribbling adolescent.) I can say all of this with a straight face because other young people – especially women, especially ovarian cancer patients – have told me that my story has given them a measure of hope, a reason to believe that they, too, might live to see Five Years Out. The power of this story that I have been blessed to live out is simply that it continues to unfold, that I am here to tell it.
As long as there are those who need to hear this story, I will continue to tell it. With its repetition, hopefully its meaning with change and deepen. Telling it, and connecting with those who benefit from its significance, continues to feed my own spirit. For life, once cancer recedes, remains hard and confusing. It grows more beautiful and poignant, but it never stops being complicated. For me, the telling of this story is a reminder of the heartache and loss which defined so much of my first years in the throes of cancer, and the nightmarish hangover to which it gave rise. It allows to me to hold close friends I have lost, and those who continue to fight much harder than I ever had to. For others, I only hope that mine is a story that offers some measure of reassurance in the face of so much that is unknown.