I confess I don’t love it when a tirade against a social or global problem say “X is a cancer.”
But then I’m a cancer survivor.
Cancer is a cancer. Cancer’s not shorthand. Maybe to you it is. It’s not to me.
Cancer is getting that call from the oncologist that changes the trajectory of your life.
Cancer is vomiting in the parking lot after leaving a birthday party.
Cancer is that cloud of nausea and illness that doesn’t waft over you, but descends and crashes down upon you as you sit in those recliners at the chemotherapy center.
Cancer is finding clumps of hair on your pillow.
Cancer is realizing that chemo baldness isn’t a cute pixie cut but all-over-hairlessness, that you can’t even raise your eyebrows or flutter your eyelashes, because it’s all gone and you look like death warmed over.
Cancer is fatigue; always fatigue, exhaustion, a cloud of confusion. But productive, active people look at you funny and think, Well, she’s fine now, so why isn’t she pulling her weight like everyone else?
Cancer is the effects of chemo, surgery, radiation that live with you, long after people congratulate you on “Oh you’re well now!” because that means they don’t have to feel so bad for you anymore.
Cancer is aloneness.
Cancer is people not knowing what to say to you. Not knowing what to say back. Losing people because what can anyone say? Losing people because making an effort is so hard now.
Cancer is not knowing what to say when people ask you what they can do for you, because you want to say: everything and nothing.
Cancer is being irritable because nobody gets it.
Cancer is becoming a target of everyone’s advice on lifestyle, diet, attitude, mental health, parenting, work, family, and self-help. Cancer is not being able to tell anyone to stuff it, because after all, you may need their help, and you don’t want to have a bad attitude. A cancer patient is supposed to be a suffering saint. A symbol. A Jonah. A big sign that says to other people PHEW. At least YOU don’t have CANCER.
Cancer is fear of losing your job, your marriage, your sex life, your life.
Cancer is losing your job and your sex life.
Cancer is wondering if your employer and colleagues really mean they will support you, or if they just want you to stop looking so miserable.
Cancer is trying too hard, teaching in the middle of chemo, doing fieldwork in the middle of chemo (picture 1), traveling, working, and still finding it was not enough.
Cancer is, often, realizing that your colleagues were lying about their “support”, and that they were angling to kick you out as soon as your hair came back. When the hair is back, don’t you know, you’re all better, and can be treated like shit again.
Cancer is the body fighting for survival, losing the battle as it wins.
Cancer is losing femininity, losing years, losing quality of life.
Cancer is peeling, blackened skin, scabbing skin, black pores, painful radiation sites.
Cancer is fake nipples that look like a cartoon, a joke; dented reconstructed breasts.
Cancer is feeling like a freak and a clown with one breast until they get the other part of your bilateral mastectomy done.
Cancer is fear.
Cancer is a huge change of plans like nothing else.
Cancer is wondering if you should plan to stay in a neighborhood, a city, a region, – or if it even matters because you might be gone soon, so maybe your spouse should be free to move elsewhere he can get a good job.
Cancer is wondering if you should write articles, do new research, write a new book, focus on teaching — or if you should spend all your time with your child because none of that stuff will matter soon.
Cancer is not illiteracy, cancer is not sectarianism, cancer is not hate, cancer is not all this other stuff. Cancer is something else. Cancer isn’t out there. Cancer is in there. In my body. Hiding. Ready to get me.
You may not have experienced it. Lucky you. But it’s annoying when people recycle cancer as a label for all the other things that spread insidiously.
When I get irritated about people calling other things cancer, I’m not protecting an identity. Some kind of cancer club.
What I’m actually doing, ironically, is protecting the rest of my life, I’m protecting non-disease discourse from the encroachment of cancer. Cancer has taken over enough of my daily working, resting, reflecting hours. No more. Cancer is cancer.