There is one thing that every cancer survivor I know wishes for at this time of year, or any time of year. And that is to have never had cancer.
Mind you, I did not say that we wish for cancer never to return, never to metastasize, though of course we wish those things too. But the dream is to return to things as they once were, which we all know is impossible. As I said to the kindly technician who prepared me for my sentinel node biopsy and asked me "is it all right if I do this?" as she moved through the motions of the procedure:
No, it's not all right. I want to go home!
You have to laugh. What else can you do, really?
While I will hail any advancement that might help those suffering from metastatic disease, while I cross my fingers in hope that someone could figure out what triple negative breast cancer really IS, so that it could be treated adequately in the future, the various "cures" and treatments that exist today or might exist in the future give me little but pause.
I acknowledge that cancer will probably always be with us, though I think we could do a much better job at figuring out how to prevent it. But there is so much pressure on us as survivors to tough it out, to change our habits, to win, to beat the beast. I just wish that the culture of cancer wasn't so closely linked to our misplaced obsession with individual power.
I believe that we experience cancer differently in the United States, in part due to this problem.
We are a nation that is so focused on its own culture of machismo and bravado that we don't even realize it; women engage in this as well. So, we find out we have cancer, and we fight ourselves, we war, we are suddenly, horribly responsible for saving our own skins through our willingness to go to war with cancer, which happens to be something that resides in our own bodies. Therefore, we war with ourselves.
We delude ourselves into thinking that we have power over this disease, that diseases are, in fact, things that only happen to "damaged" or "weak" people. We blame the stress of everyday life more than the various chemicals that we put into our bodies, knowingly or unknowingly, every single day. We do this, and we put the onus of survival on ourselves, while the power to wield environmental or cultural decisions lies with someone else, or something else, entirely.
We delude ourselves even in the ways that we talk about handling "side effects" of cancer treatment. While I experienced a multitude of very bizarre side effects to chemo, and, more importantly, other drugs prescribed to manage the side effects everyone assumed I would have, I take issue with the notion that the harbingers of cancer treatment--specifically, toxic chemotherapy--are "side effects." The big issues that most breast cancer survivors who take chemotherapy have are these: total baldness, extreme nausea and vomiting, destruction of the ovaries and the consequent onset of menopause, neuropathy, chemobrain, anorexia, mouth sores and other lesions, extreme dryness throughout the body, paralyzing fatigue, and high risk for subsequent cancers or heart disease.
These are not side effects that we can "manage" or "hide" with other medications. These are the intended responses of the chemotherapy we are given. And yes, I mean that. What, after all, is adriamicin? That drug affectionately called the red devil or the red death--what is it? Well, honestly, I don't know. I do know that when that syringe of what appears to be red koolaid is pushed into you via IV, you literally feel the coldness of death course through your veins. I never knew what that phrase meant, until I experienced it for myself.
And what is taxol? Taxol is a derivative of yew tree bark. It is insoluble to the body, so must be dissolved in a castor oil solution, causing severe allergic reactions in a substantial minority of patients (including me). If you were in the wild, and you ate this bark, you would die.
And what is cytoxan, the third chemo that I took, you might ask? Well, it is, quite simply...a form of mustard gas. Now do you understand the neuropathy and chemobrain that some people experience?
And finally, we come to radiation. What more is there to say? People worry about the radiation in a plane ride, the radiation present in a banana. Those of us who did radiation treatment for cancer essentially lived in a Chernobyl-esque environment, one that "plumped up our breasts," because it fundamentally altered the DNA of the cells it touched.
And so we must acknowledge that the horrible "side effects" of such treatments are not really side effects at all, but expected results--these are cell-killers, after all. Some of us were unlucky, and others lucky, in the extent to which we experienced these effects and whether or not they were long-lasting. Sleep, diet, and exercise do wonders for making us feel better, but they can at times be weak forces against the powerful poison that some of us were powerless to avoid if we wanted to live.
We did not choose to do this to ourselves, and these weapons of war (literally, if you think of the comparisons between chemical weapons and chemotherapy) can leave us feeling eternally conflicted for what we have done to ourselves. I have asked myself many times, dear Lord, what have I done? Only to remind myself THAT I DID NOT DO THIS. I AM NOT AT FAULT FOR THIS.
Cancer is not alone in the way that we attempt to "empower" victims by telling them that they control their own sorry fates. We do this to other victims as well. In fact, we have tried, and mostly succeeded, to convince people that being a victim is bad, because it means you are weak and worthless. So we tell victims of sexual assault (which I would contend should just be called rape--there is no sex in rape, only violence) through our continued focus on how women, and even children, can learn to be "badasses" that they are ultimately responsible for the situation that has befallen them. We blame women for their dress, their sexual history, their decisions to be in a certain place at a certain time, rather than question those who believe they have the right to other people's bodies. We condone the culture of rape, and claim that the "power" to prevent it lies with the individual who experiences it.
In one situation that I experienced when I was very young, that I escaped before being raped but which changed me forever, I was left with this haunting thought. I knew, I just knew, that this would not have happened to me if I was a different girl, if I had just wanted to dance and drink and flirt with the boys like everyone else. I thought that this happened to me because I was the "wrong kind of girl," and someone was punishing me for it. And what kind of girl was that, you ask?
I was the only girl at the party who wanted to watch the basketball game on TV.
I have spent more than 20 years holding steadfast to that girl, because the problem was never her--not ever.
After all, what if someone is actually more powerful than you? Just by nature of being bigger, and stronger? Does that mean you are weak?
Or, that he shouldn't have used his power to commit an act of violence?
We do this, and we do not even seem to realize we are doing it. We try and convince ourselves that there is some universe in which it makes sense for kindergarten teachers, who are mostly a friendly, nonviolent sort, to carry semi-automatic weapons. We plan to teach five year olds what to do if their classroom is transformed into a warzone. We turn every individual into the one who should protect himself or herself, and we fail to focus on the collective responsibility that we all have to protect one another. We avoid policies that could bring about real, meaningful change, because we have created a culture where everyone is out for himself.
So it is with cancer. I contend that it is not for me to be brave, or beautiful, or strong. It is for us as a society to try to make strides towards eradicating a disease that will afflict fully 50% of the population before death. It is for us as a society to hold each other up in times of sickness, to allow ourselves to accept some level of weakness and to let others help us.
Every time we personalize a social issue, we move away from any useful solution. We take large, complex problems, and concoct for them fantastical, even juvenile, solutions. Perhaps I am a superhuman, capable of protecting myself and my family from every possible scourge: famine, illness, violence, poverty.
Or, perhaps I am not. Perhaps none of us are. Perhaps true power, true freedom even, lies in the ability to not have to fight, to live out the promise of our lives unscathed because we have ensured a civil society that embraces a real sense of community and collective mores.
If there is one thing that has made me feel free in this life, that has made me feel powerful, it has been the ability to walk away. To walk away from my own convulsions, to walk when I once could not, to run from people who intended to hurt me, to sacrifice worldly possessions in exchange for a safe ride home, to live for two years without poisoning myself, to walk, or run, or crawl, back into the normalcy and complacency of my life. I might be doomed to a life inside this getaway car, always looking over my shoulder, but I am not the one who committed the crime.
If we must be "empowered," we have already lost half the battle. Would that we would not need such power in the first place.