The news that the wife of John Edwards, Democratic contender for the presidential nomination, has had her breast cancer return hit me like a punch in the gut. Not because I particularly care about Edwards, or his quest for the presidency, but because cancer is one of those things that cut across all racial and national and class lines, and it demands to be heard. It cuts to the chase, cancer does. And Edwards's wife had supposedly been given the all-clear awhile back, and here comes the cancer, back for more. Stage Four: treatable, but not curable.
I think cancer should probably become a curse word. Put it in Bartlett's Quotations under Profanities, or Slang, or wherever the 'bad words' come to rest. It needs to be the word we say when we stub our toes, or hammer our thumbs, or forget to add the fabric softener. "Cancer!" we should say. Everything else sounds kind of silly in comparison. "Jesus Christ!" we say. I mean, shit, Jesus was, by the sounds of things, a pretty good guy. "Motherfucker!" others might blurt out. But c'mon -- who knows anybody that's fucked their mother? And why would that piss us off, necessarily? (Unless it was our own mother, I guess.)
Stephen King was going to name his novel Dreamcatcher 'Cancer', until his wife forbade it, saying that the book would then be practically begging for bad luck. Because what else is cancer but bad luck, ominous music playing in the background, the sound of a tree against your windowpanes on a dark and wintry night? It's a lottery played by fate, or body chemistry, or lifestyle, that chucks the dice and wishes you luck before it heads on out to another house, only to return, months or years later, still as potent and primal as ever.
I try not to think about cancer too much, which means only a few times a day. Self-pity is not an option, especially since I'm not the one with the disease. But self-pity seems to be what humans are built to execrete, then endure, so sometimes it can be a challenge. The thing is, this disease truly is everywhere. We're waiting for the CT-scan results for ovarian cancer in the oncologist's office in Manila last summer and on the TV is Larry King and he's showing a retrospective of interviews with Patsy Ramsey (former-suspect in her daughter Jon Benet's death) on the occasion of her death from ovarian cancer. ("Nice. Let's change the channel, shall we.") A month or so ago Angelina Jolie's mother dies of ovarian. ("Hmm. Wonder who's on Conan.") Turn on the news the other day and Maria Shriver is chatting about cancer with Sheryl Crow and everybody's skirting around the issue of how much time Edwards' wife has left. ("Right. Idol should be starting about now.")
And that's just from the famous folk. You sit in the doctor's office and watch the glum and frightened faces of young women, mothers, grandmothers, workers. Their kids play at their feet, oblivious. Outside the sound of the street maintains its usual hum. Life endures.
There's a sign in that office. 'My Life Has Gotten Better Since I Learned I Had Cancer' it says. You gotta be fucking kidding me, I thought, when I first read it. I've read it a bunch of times since then. Again and again. Read it until it started to make some kind of sense. I don't have cancer, so it's not truly intended for my eyes, but I know someone who does, so I've taken the liberty of studying its axioms.
It makes sense to me now, a little. Things become telescoped. Days are more intense. Fears are more acute. Tears are more real, and genuine, and accepted, if not earned. (After all, if tears are going to come, they might as well be for cancer.) Perspective becomes total. Difficult decisions do not seem so difficult. Excuses no longer seem as valid. Everything becomes intense. Almost vivid, daily.
The strange paradox is that cancer brings sickness and disease and decay and, most of all, death, to the forefront, but by doing so, it allows you to become more enveloped by life. You truly understand the yin and the yang of it all. (You don't necessarily accept it, or like it, but you can understand it. Slightly.) You marvel about the unfathomably minor things we worry about, focus on, obsess over. You appreciate the grace of mobility. You see the endgame brought up close, so soon. You understand that today is here, and now, and in your hands.