[cancer] The gentle subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull

Mostly these days I just trundle along. The mortal terror and high anxiety I’ve been through during past phases of my cancer journey isn’t a daily feature of my life lately. I don’t need to pull over the car for a crying jag, I don’t have panic attacks. As I’ve mentioned before, the human mind’s capacity to routinize anything is truly astonishing.

Still, sometimes events or the comments of other people pull me back into a difficult headspace.

This isn’t my news to share in any detail, but a friend who has a very similar cancer situation to mine was just given a diagnosis that is probably terminal. Specifically, a new round of metastases in an inoperable location. This, of course, could happen to me at any time. Precisely so. It’s what killed another friend of mine last spring, also with a very similar cancer situation to mine. I’ve been lucky that my metastases so far have been discrete, single tumors in easily accessible locations (lower lobe of left lung and right lobe of liver). All I need is a tumor in the liver stem and I’ll be doing short term end-of-life planning.

And there’s absolutely nothing I can do to control or prevent this.

Yesterday, Mother of the Child and I met with [info]the_child‘s new therapist that she’ll start seeing next week. She’s having typical teen transition issues, plus working through her identity as a transracial adoptee, plus dealing with my cancer. She needs this. MotC and I spent an hour going through [info]the_child‘s life history, our marital history, our current living arrangements, my health issues, our assessment of our daughter’s life issues and so forth. The therapist, charmingly blunt, finally said, “It really sounds like you’ve done everything right. You’ve got good parenting, good living arrangements, she’s in the best school she can possibly be in for her needs.” Then she looked at me with my 30% five-year survival rate and said, “But if you die in the next few years, all that good work goes swirling down the drain.”

That’s telling it like it is. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do to control or prevent this. That five-year timeline for survival? That’s how long it will take her to make it through high school.

At this point, other than the cancer, I border on disgustingly healthy. For a chemo patient, I am disgustingly healthy. I can do a lot to take care of myself to improve my tolerance of and response to surgeries, chemo and (if needed at some point) radiotherapy. I can do a lot to take care of myself to be available to my daughter, to have the energy to write my books, to be connected to family and friends, and to live in the world.

But my ability to control what actually happens next in my cancer?

Spitting in the wind.

As I said to my therapist yesterday, “Hey, I could take up smoking! It doesn’t matter now.”

We are all mortal. Everyone dies. But my chess match with death is in a very different state that most of my peers and age cohort. Most days I just shrug and move on. Yesterday, the fact that I can see the end game a few moves away, and the absolute lack of control I have over when that end game takes place, was hammered home with all the gentle subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull of a slaughterhouse pig.

Sorry, no quiet wisdom or life lessons in this one. Just me thinking aloud about the fundamental brutality of living with cancer.

One thought on “[cancer] The gentle subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull

  1. Stevie says:


    You might want to give some thought to choosing a different therapist for the child. No competent therapist makes such sweeping assumptions about what will happen in any given situation, just as no competent doctor makes assumptions as to which individuals within a particular cohort will live, and which individuals will die.

    My daughter, who is a junior doctor, tells me that this is because they genuinely haven’t a clue; there really is no way to identify them.

    Frankly, it sounds as if the therapist is getting her excuses in first, to the detriment of the well being of her prospective patient. Self fulfilling prophecies are the last thing you want being funnelled into the child’s mind.

    I had therapy for post-traumatic stress syndrome for several years; I had been blown up by an exploding oxygen regulator when I was 36 weeks pregnant.

    You probably don’t want a first person description of what it is like to be trapped in a room with a fire being fed by pure oxygen, but it certainly subsequently caused me considerable difficulties since I have a lung disease which requires a lot of treatment in hospitals, and hospitals have lots and lots of oxygen cylinders. They have lots and lots of other compressed gases as well, which can also go bang.

    My therapist could have simply thrown in the towel, citing the impossibility of eradicating the real fear hardwired into my brain by experience, but he didn’t. Instead he worked on ways to slowly make it more manageable, with the ultimate goal of enabling me to go into hospital without being heavily sedated first.

    I can do that, and the baby that I was 36 weeks pregnant with is now the junior doctor I mentioned above. We both got out of it alive, and I hope the same will apply to you and your child.

    But the child’s chances will be a lot better if she has a therapist who is not looking for ways to excuse herself, particularly when those excuses include guilt-tripping someone -yourself- who has a serious illness. My therapist at no point suggested to me that I was endangering the well-being of my infant/toddler/young child by callously refusing to go into hospital for treatment. Actually, that was what I was accusing myself of, and he very strongly disagreed on that point; as he pointed out, I didn’t choose to be blown up, and I didn’t choose to have serious lung disease.

    You didn’t choose any of this either, but you do have a choice on considering another therapist for your child.

    Frankly, it’s not just the ‘getting the excuses in first’ problem; it sounds as if the therapist has serious unresolved personal issues with her own fear of death, and is using you as a means of reassuring herself that it isn’t going to happen to her. You really don’t need to deal with that sort of garbage…

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