No one knows exactly if your cancer will kill you sooner, or later, or not at all. There is the often broken five-year test of time, there are statistics and prognoses and studies, there are oncologists, radiologists, surgeons, and social workers; there are articles in the New York Times and the New England Journal of Medicine that often contradict each other. Lung cancer has killed many non-smokers and marathon runners have had heart attacks.
I was told in the support group that if cancer didn’t kill you, it changed you forever. But even though I was fragmented and scattered and shook and needed to be put back together, I didn’t believe it. It was too mythic, I decided, too romantic, too sentimental, a TV illness of the week. You’ve seen the movie.
To my surprise, I discover that the myth reflects truth. I am recast with a new integrating core; there is a reconstituted me, glued together by radiation and a new way to see. I am a different person in both a vague and dynamic way that is as ambiguous, as ill-defined, as incomprehensible and life-changing as giving birth or falling in love. I am freer, calmer, less lonely, better friends with myself. I have more of an edge and more softness; my likes and dislikes are crisper. I understand more deeply the friends and acquaintances and the people I love. The epiphanies slip in and out of my awareness like a butterfly or a breeze, but lie in wait and return.
Cancer runs a tight ship. You have no more patience for small talk. Cancer insists on curriculum. Conversation about trips, kids, grandchildren and real estate makes you restless. Cancer doesn’t suffer fools gladly, or for that matter, the mean, the shallow, or the boring. Life strips itself down to simple equations. It is a crazy relief.
Cancer explodes old relationships and seals others. You realize who the people in your life really are; you can see into their souls. You know the green of spring for the first time; the thoughts in your head; your mistakes. Your cancer has the spin and speed of a ride at Disneyland. Time is slower and faster; each second, minute, hour, is either stopped by a new sight or fresh insight, or speeded up into terror (my God this thing can kill me). You are more peaceful and more afraid. As old as you are you understand the cliché for the first time: that each moment is gone forever, never, ever, to return…