I felt a wave of optimism yesterday as I left my apartment to go grocery shopping—mostly about the weather, which seemed to have shifted from a ceiling of gray, ominous clouds to blue skies dotted with puffy clouds. I put on my new lion espadrilles that aren’t supposed to get wet and set out, noticing along the way the old Poland Springs plastic water bottle half-full of urine I’d seen a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure if this was a good sign or not.
The urine bottle, oddly, made me think about how much I’d miss New York if I left. Everyone seems to be leaving or talking about leaving these days, in light of how expensive it’s getting to live here. I looked up an apartment I saw for sale in my neighborhood, just for fun, and it cost a million dollars. I’m not using that as an exaggeration, like when I talk about how much a pint of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream costs here. This apartment really cost a million dollars. For that price, area urine should be discarded in Voss bottles.
This is one of the only places I feel really comfortable. I enjoy the balance here. For every bottle of urine, there’s something beautiful and unexpected. For every time there’s the smell of rotting garbage or urine (unbottled, I presume), there’s a linden or chocolate cake breeze. And vice-versa. I find it oddly comforting.
Halfway to the store, I felt several drops of rain and looked up to see a lone gray cloud above, making a few half-hearted attempts to rain only on me, as if I were an unlucky comic strip character. It seemed like a physical embodiment of my recent post-cancer depression—sun and beauty all around, and a small, plaguing sadness trying to descend upon me.
If it started to really rain, I thought about ducking into a store that sold shoes suitable for rain if I came across one. I wasn’t too upset about the threat of a small shower—I’d figure out what to do about my shoes.
In fact, a good percentage of my clothing is bought out of necessity—rain jackets, hoodies, comfortable shoes. I consider weather for which I’m inappropriately dressed a cosmic sign to buy necessities I’m loathe to purchase. I couldn’t control the weather, so I’d make do.
I usually think of myself as pretty easy-going, not a control freak. But recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about control, and lack thereof.
Tuesday, amid the flurry of news feed posts about Robin Williams’ suicide (which also got me thinking about control, but so much has been said on this subject, I’m just going to let the man rest in peace), another story caught my eye. New York Magazine posted a link to a story called “Avoiding the Breast Cancer ‘Warrior’ Trap” by Peter Bach, the doctor who months ago wrote an honest, poignant piece about losing his wife to cancer. It was teased with, “Let’s get real: Cancer doesn’t really make you stronger.”
In the column, Bach talks about being at a Gilda’s Club luncheon, where Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach spoke about her recent breast cancer screening and treatment. In his opinion, she oversimplified two complicated, controversial issues: the mammogram effectiveness debate and her decision to have a double mastectomy. I’m going to leave those topics to the doctor and the breast cancer community.
What struck me was that Bach was troubled by Robach’s assertion: “I kicked cancer’s ass.” Labeling people who end up in remission from cancer as warriors, Bach argues, negates those who die from the disease.
It’s not the first time this has been brought up. In Pink Ribbons, Inc., a documentary about the corporatizing of breast cancer, the filmmakers talk to women with Stage IV breast cancer about how the “survivor” label implies that those who don’t make it didn’t fight hard enough.
I’m not sure how I personally feel about the survivor label. You have definitely gone through something and survived. I feel as if I’m in the middle as someone with refractory Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I survived…for now.
I think the more nuanced point that Bach makes is that there’s an erroneous implication that surviving cancer is based on how hard you fight, that you can somehow control the outcome more than you can.
I would agree with him there. People fight very hard and still lose. In the case of relapsed and refractory Hodgkin’s lymphoma, you emerge from battle only to discover you didn’t win the war and have more fights ahead.
Cancer is extremely unfair. In that aspect, I think the war/battle analogy is accurate. Do we say that those who don’t survive are any less brave?
If there’s a battle comparison to be made, a friend who read my last blog about post-cancer depression said that since I’d been fighting cancer for so long, my depression was like the emptiness of missing battle.
It’s true. Instead of a proud returning war hero, I feel more like the soldier in The Hurt Locker, disconnected with a day-to-day routine, unsure of how to live in the world.
A few phone calls to the department of labor turned me into a quivering mess of emotion and despair, though I suppose dealing with bureaucracy has always turned me into a sad Kafka-esque figure, pained by the absurdity of human existence. Even a glance at a tax form or a health insurance explanation of benefits quickly sends me to the depths of existential despair.
I feel as if in the last year and a half, I’ve lost control over too many things. I swing from struggling for control to recoiling from taking it back. I don’t roll as easily with the punches.
I think that the idea of being a “cancer warrior” is a label that’s meant to be helpful and empowering, but it also can add unnecessary pressure when you’ve been shown just how vulnerable you can be. I think people are looking for control, when so often in the case of cancer, there’s frighteningly little of it. Your own body has tried to kill you. Is the illusion of control helpful or harmful?
Everyone deals with things differently. I’m sure some people feel invincible after cancer, and I don’t begrudge them. I only envy them. I thought maybe once I’d faced cancer, I would feel braver, but if anything, I’ve felt more unsure of myself lately. I’ve been struggling to re-acquaint myself with living in a world I’ve always had trouble fitting into to begin with.
My boyfriend asked why, when I complained about having so much to do, I prioritized working out. I do want to get stronger and do activities to maintain a healthy heart and lungs that put up with a lot of potentially damaging treatment. But the underlying reason is there: The need for some control, even if it’s misguided. It’s been a way of trying to re-assert some control over my traitorous body, a way to say, “I’m still in charge of some things around here.”
I’m not sure if I agree that cancer doesn’t make you emotionally and mentally stronger in some ways. Though now I feel weakened, I hope I’ll show some strength in the long run.
I’m not sure that I feel proud to have survived cancer (for now). Just relieved and still shaken.
In this life, we have such little control over some things, like cancer or the weather, and also a terrifying—often daunting—amount over how we react to the things we can’t control. As I flail and falter, I hope to find my balance once again.
Photo note: The wise cat knows not to take my espadrilles in the rain and wears them only indoors.