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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Famous Person Gets Cancer; Writes Poignant Essay

Photo by Ray Hennessy of Crushed Box Photography
A famous person has received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has written a poignant essay.

A Facebook friend shared that essay this morning. I swiftly moved my cursor to the upper right hand corner of the box: "I don't want to see this." And I moved on, fearing what was coming. I know this essay would be shared multiple times; I'd have to click that "I don't want to see this" box many times, and stuff my fingers in my ears and repeat "LA LA LA LA" to avoid the inevitable encomiums to the famous man with inspirational cancer.

Another Facebook friend shared the essay this evening with an added editorial comment. The essay was "lovely."

I did not contain my rage, which was inchoate even to me. "'Lovely?' My mother died of cancer. I held her hand as she breathed her last breath. There is nothing 'lovely' about cancer."

And then, again, I rapidly moved my cursor to "I don't want to see this."

I remember my grandmother's screams as she died of cancer. They would not give her enough medication. Grandma asked the nurses; they denied or ignored her. Grandma asked my mother, 'Pavlina, ask the doctors.' My mother, her daughter, begged for the pain medication, and they wouldn't give it to her. The American doctors told my grandmother that they had adequately addressed her pain; that she should not be feeling any pain. Grandma came all the way from Slovakia to America, only for this, to die relatively young, and in gruesome pain, pain they told her she shouldn't even be feeling.

I never met my grandmother; she died before I was born. My mother described her death. Many times? One time? I don't remember. I can say that my mother's description of my grandmother's slow, doomed, death from excruciatingly painful cancer is engraved into me, letter by letter.

I resolved, as a child, never to get cancer.

I got word that my brother Mike, 33, was dying, in a dream. At the time I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote Himalayan village. On the basis of the dream, I hitched on my backpack, and began walking. As soon as I arrived in Kathmandu, I was flown to America, to see him one last time. Mike was a father, with another baby on the way. He stayed alive long enough to hold Lydia in his arms. I've never met Lydia. She's out there, somewhere, and the only thing I know about her is that she wants nothing to do with her aunt, whom she has never met.

I held my mother's hand as the last breath left her body. Watching her die of cancer caused me to forgive her for everything. "Everything" was a lot, in our case. It was that bad. The suffering she went through, even with hospice-supplied morphine, was that bad.

When I received my own diagnosis of cancer, the initial prognosis was not for long-term survival. People insisted, "Well, you've lived such a full life." What they didn't know is that no one has ever said "I love you" to me. Some silly, soppy part of me kept marching through every day because it was lured on by that chimerical carrot. Someday I would meet a man who would see something worthy in me, and he would love me, and I would begin to live. After I got my cancer diagnosis, I realized how idiotic I had been to hope that. My prognosis improved greatly after surgery. In this chopped up body that no one will ever love, I'm still alive, and I have no idea why.

A neighbor has cancer, or so I gather from his appearance. We do not talk. We have been within sneezing distance for ten years. I tried once to chat with him in a neighborly way, and his replies suggested to me that he is mentally ill. Sometimes naïve friends send me packages, through the postal service, to my address. These packages are stolen. Sometimes the empty package, ripped open, is left outside my door. I often wonder if it is my neighbor who steals them. I don't know.

I've never seen or heard him with any friends. He was born on another continent; I've never met anyone else in this city from his land, who speaks his natal language. He is alone.

I noticed his rapid weight loss a few months back. Then he began to smell of urine. Then there were worse smells emanating from his apartment. Though it's a cold winter, this building had a very bad fly infestation recently. I wondered if this infestation was related to my neighbor's cancer. Were they breeding in … his … unkempt apartment? Bodily fluids? Corpse? A couple of times the super has pounded on my neighbor's door. "Are you there? Are you there? We are just trying to make sure you are okay."

My neighbor is bald now, and in a wheelchair. He was able to walk a month ago; no more.

Sometimes uniformed, anonymous health aides leave him parked in the hallway. He is too disoriented to carry his key, and the super doesn't come soon enough to let him into his apartment.

Cancer in someone poor and alone is hard to watch. And watch is all I am prepared to do. I don't know this man. I'm a bit afraid of him. I am overwhelmed with my own health needs and my sister. There is nothing Christian in my response to my neighbor's cancer. In relation to him, I am as stone cold as a year zero Pagan on her way to the gladiatorial games. It is ugly to confront this in myself.

When I see my neighbor, I resolve again, that I must kill myself before I get to that state.

I didn't know I could feel as much emotional pain as I have felt over my sister's diagnosis.

I'm so fucking sick of people turning cancer into poetry and slogans and t-shirts and butterflies and poignant, uplifting essays that get shared on Facebook. .

We don't attempt to tame, prettify, and befriend other atrocities.

Oh, a celebrity was raped, and she wrote a lovely essay about it that appears on the New York Times' op ed page today. It was SO uplifting and life affirming!

Nobody writes poems that get illustrated by wistful bluebirds about starvation or acid attacks or other horrible things that hurt like hell, that mutilate our bodies, grind us down and, eventually, after taking everything that matters, including our dreams, kill us.

Why do some insist on doing this with cancer?

Years ago I had a vestibular disorder that caused complete functional paralysis and uncontrollable vomiting.

Very few people have ever heard of vestibular disorders. No one had any idea what I was going through. Others' total ignorance was very isolating. Who wants to hang out with a woman who can't stop puking?

An internet acquaintance asked, "Don't you wish you had cancer? Everybody knows what cancer is. There are so many societies and support groups. You'd just have to say 'cancer' and so many services would be at your fingertips."

She was right. When I finally got my inevitable cancer diagnosis, there were so many support groups and services. And that was great.

What wasn't great was this. This urge to tidy up and domestic and be inspired by cancer.

I feel that all these Inspirational Cancer Products like the last lecture delivered by the guy with pancreatic cancer or the latest poignant cancer essay are objects that come between a real person with real cancer and the person next to him or her who doesn't have cancer.

The Inspirational Cancer Product is written in neon letters ten feet high. This person is a *celebrity*! And he has cancer! And he's inspiring me! He's teaching me deep and poignant lessons about my own life! I can experience his cancer story while lounging in a hammock.

And you, you real person with cancer, you are bald, and you smell bad, and the anonymous health aide just parked your wheelchair in the hallway because you are too overwhelmed by what's happening to you to know where your key is. You scare and depress me and life feels chaotic around you.

I so often feel, I don't know who I am in relation to my sister. I never realized how dogged my love for her is. This love pounds against my flesh and demands that I save her, and I can't. And I have no place to go with this agony.

No hammock lounging inspirations here.


  1. I am incredibly sorry. I can't even imagine what you are going through with your sister's illness. Please know you are in my prayers, if that helps at all.