Cancer: The Alcoholism of Diseases
How weird is that? I mean, can you even do that? Can you take one disease and use it in a metaphor about another disease?
Anyway. What I’m really trying to say is that, unlike every other disease – except alcoholism, that is – cancer is the one disease that never lets you out of its grip.
By that I don’t mean cowering under the bed, worrying if Jason will ever come back. Do I think about it? Sure. But not anymore than I worry about … Jason actually coming back. Is it possible? Sure. Do I care? Not really.
I’m not trying to be flippant. Maybe it’s because I’m a fatalist. I mean, something’s gonna git ya in the end. Might as well be cancer. I mean we can’t all die in our sleep at the ripe of age of Methuselah – ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be, Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain’ – I mean, nobody wants to kick the bucket before they’ve filled their "bucket" up with some really cool shit. Ask John Keats. Or Jack Nicholson. Or Morgan Freeman.
"The grip" is the grip of association. An alcoholic can never say he’s cured. He’s not allowed to say it. Other recovering alcoholics would pounce. I was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. By 2006, after a draconian exorcism, i.e., chemo, radiation, two surgeries, I was pronounced cancer free – not a cancer cell in my entire body – and have been ever since. Six years of CAT scans, PET scans, blood tests, and never a trace of Jason or his scary hockey mask – is he the one with the hockey mask?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I mind changing my last name to Cancer Survivor Bob any more than I would mind if I had to discard my last name all together like those people at A.A. meetings. It’s just that, unlike a member of A.A., I don’t feel like I’m part of the club anymore. And unlike an alcoholic, I can honestly say that I don’t have that problem anymore. I am – dare I say it? Cured.
So why do I feel so guilty?
Why don’t I wear a pink ribbon everywhere I go? Why haven’t I signed up for the next "Race for the Cure?" Why haven’t I changed my name to Cancer Survivor? Why – and here’s the big why – why don’t I feel part of the club anymore?
Why do I feel like one of those junkies on "Intervention" whenever I hear other cancer survivors talking to each other at the hospital or on the tube?
“No! You don’t get it. I really don’t have that problem anymore. Really! Seven years! Seven years of cancer sobriety! And stop tricking me into coming in for my ‘last interview’!
So, I’m talking to my oncologist yesterday, Dr. Giantonio, and I mention how when I was first diagnosed I would do anything the doctors told me to do: CAT scan, five hour chemo drip – I think I even had a nuclear enema! But now, I squirm when the pleasant young techie asks me to make a fist so she can take my blood pressure.
And then he said something that really registered:
“Well, that’s in your past now” This guy's really good! I mean it may sound painfully obvious but it’s exactly what I needed to hear and, like a good swift kick in the mind, it got me thinking again. Cancer has a way of slowly devolving you from a reflective, thinking being to a creature of sheer reaction. After all, survival is a mode not a process.
When you think your future is about to be taken away from you, you find yourself stuck in the present and wallowing in the past. But when your future once again looms on the horizon, you, like everyone else, start making plans again. The past is put back into perspective and the present is no longer a prison – or the basement of the church hall where they hold the A.A. meetings.
I don’t know. After such a traumatic episode, some people take their that future that wasn’t taken from them and spend it giving back, as if they owed a debt to someone – God, or the cosmos, or their fellow man. And some, like me, just return to their lazy lives as if nothing much really happened.
Oh, I’m not that shallow. In my own small way, I do what I can to help the others in my boat, but compared to them? I really should be ashamed of myself.
I guess, like grief, everyone handles guilt differently. And when it comes to survivor’s guilt? Cut off my legs and call me Shorty!
There seem to be so many therapy groups out there for people living with cancer and dying with cancer. Maybe we need one for the survivors who have shaken their fist at the old bastard and shouted:
“And don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out!” One to help us learn to how to survive cancer.
Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – at least until I look under my bed one night and see that damned hockey mask.