It's National Cancer Survivor Day. This is a day that is set aside to celebrate the lives of cancer survivors. Since cancer isn't like a single point in time situation, I'm never sure what to make of these days; it's possible to survive cancer and then, you know, not survive it anymore.
Not to be a Debbie Downer or anything.
Being a cancer survivor is hard. I'm not saying that it's hard because of the physical changes the disease brings to you, the risks, the fear, the isolation and lost friendships, the insecurity, the heavy shit you have to talk to your family about, the ongoing tests, the money it costs, the lack of health insurance available to you, and on and on. I mean it's hard--like, it's WORK.
There are a lot of people telling cancer survivors how they should live their lives. There are a lot of "right" ways to be a cancer survivor. To be safe, one should presumably be growing all of his own food, dedicating enormous amounts of time to exercise, going to church regularly and removing all cussing from her life, and abstaining from everything that might bring one iota of risk into this already fragile state of affairs. In fact, from what I've read, including from sources that exist in order to support people like me, being the right kind of cancer survivor is basically a full-time job. There is always something new that can give you cancer, and all the old things can still give you cancer, and you could spend huge amounts of time avoiding things or ingesting things or researching things to try to stave off something that is difficult to understand. Even organizations such as the World Cancer Research Fund, which puts out statistics on how to "prevent" cancer naturally (one of my biggest pet peeves as a professional researcher--no one should be talking about cancer prevention, only risk reduction. the nomenclature is simply inaccurate) and puts the fear of God into people about what they should and shouldn't eat and drink and do and think about, estimates that (in it's opinion) about a third of cancers could be "prevented" through lifestyle changes.
That leaves the majority of folks who are cancer survivors--fully two thirds--out of luck, even by their estimation.
I don't think the average person has any idea how much pressure there is on cancer survivors to be perfect all the time, lest you bring that shit on yourself again; this is done under the guise of "empowerment" but it can feel debilitating, especially if you were living a healthy and fit life before the shit hit the fan. And it can be hard work, made more difficult by the expectation of constant happiness and wisdom and Zen-like understanding of the universe that we have all achieved, what with all all the joy and perspective that we never had before when we were all just pain in the ass whiners who didn't appreciate life.
I'm glad there's a day to think about cancer--especially since it's broader than breast cancer and there's no pink or crass statements about boobs. I'm glad there's a cancer day with no one telling me I'm beautiful "anyway." So, that's cool.
But here's the thing.
I don't feel different, at least not in the ways I'm supposed to feel different. If I have changed my perspective and my overall motivation, it hasn't happened in the ways that the books recommend. I've probably been living more fully in the moment, more completely in my body, than the vast majority of people ever will, but that's been true for almost 30 years, and it wasn't cancer that gave me that gift. I don't love my family more because of cancer. I always loved them. I'm not more interesting because of cancer. If I am interesting, it's because of something that was always there within me. I have made some friends because of cancer, but I have lost others because of it. I have held onto my job, but probably by the skin of my teeth. Cancer is a challenge, and you don't get to choose whether or not to rise to it. Cancer is like all other struggles in life--it involves suffering, and you hope to get through it, you hope to be able to look back on it like it's the past, but not all suffering turns out that way. It is, by definition, a disease that greatly reduces your life expectancy, even if you survive it on the first go-around.
So yes, let's celebrate life. Let's celebrate it like we always have, like we always did before, like we promise to do in the future. Let's live the way we are meant to live; this is something I learned at nine. And how are we meant to live?
Not as if death is not coming, but as if it is, but not today. Let's all live as if death is just around the corner, but the corner might be far away, or if it is close, let's hope there is some kind of mirage that makes it appear farther, so that you can enjoy your dinner and your conversations with your friends and you can pour yourself a drink of the really good stuff, and share it with your lover in bed, let's live like it's all a big absurdity and all you can do is your best.
When Gabe and I got married, we danced to a morose Johnny Cash song about dying in a stone field. That was our first dance, people. We walked down the aisle, hand in hand, together, to an orchestral version of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme song. There was a car accident in the parking lot at the reception. Some close relatives chose not to attend. Our car got broken into the day before right in front of our new house. And we printed out the following poem on nice stationery, wrapped it in ribbon, inscribed it with "Thank you for sharing in the joy of our marriage celebration. Love, Katy and Gabe, October 16, 2004" and gave it to each guest as the wedding favor.
It's national cancer survivor day. Time to eat the peach.
By Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.