[cancer] Some semi-random further thoughts

Yesterday’s post about why I write so much about cancer [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ] drew some pretty interesting comments. I responded to a number of them in place. Both composing the post and reading the comments have sparked some further thoughts.

In no particular order…

One thing no one has ever said directly to me, or about me insofar as I’m aware, is that I’ve brought the cancer on myself through my emotional or spiritual conduct. I’ve seen this claim made in other contexts. This sort of victim-blaming is one of the most pernicious, evil things I can imagine saying to a cancer patient. If anyone ever did say that to me, I would violate my policy of not trying to create Internet dogpiles and tear them a new one up, down and sideways, right out in public. First of all, it’s silly magical thinking of the first water. Second of all, it’s just an unspeakably vicious way to talk about the disease.

On a related note, something else I have not seen, to my mild surprise given some of my history with certain other people on the Internet, is any assertion that I would somehow deserve this for being who I am. Sort of a real life version of the “die in a fire” thing some people like to say about people they disagree with. Again, magical thinking; again, vicious. Again, very grateful I haven’t run into it.

So, yeah, I’ll cope with comments about my dramatic oversharing.

Speaking of comments, [info]cathshaffer pretty much boggled me with this one:

Fifty years ago, if you got a cancer diagnosis, you knew it was pretty much the end. Put your affairs in order, you are dying soon. Medical science has produced effective treatments that can prolong life significantly, and even cure the disease in some cases. Although on the face of it, that’s a great thing, what has resulted is a uniquely tortuous liminal journal between terminality and life, one for which humans are in no way emotionally equipped. Are you equipped for a terminal diagnosis. By the grace of god, yes, you are. Are you equipped to spend five or ten years or your life *not knowing* at any given time whether you might be terminal? Absolutely not. Even the cure rates are cruel. In most cancers, it’s a minority who are cured, and even the most dire-seeming cases have their rare cures. Is that a good thing? For the person getting cured, absolutely. For all of the rest of patients, who have been thrust into a Las Vegas slot machine situation, stuffing quarters in to save their lives, it becomes the highest stakes gamble of their entire lives.

If someone thinks you’re being over dramatic, or over sharing, they better PRAY TO THE FUCKING ALMIGHTY that they never find out for themselves.

She reminds me of something I’ve said to my therapist a few times, that it would almost be a relief to have a terminal diagnosis. That’s not suicidal ideation, and it’s not a death wish in the more prosaic sense. It’s my response to what Catherine so brilliantly refers to as “a uniquely tortuous liminal journal between terminality and life”.

I really need to do some deep, patient thinking about that. Her words do a wonderful job of encapsulating so much of my personal anxiety and fear.

On a slightly related note, a friend of mine (unconnected to the writing community or my online community either one) died over the weekend very unexpectedly of heart failure. We weren’t particularly close, but we’ve been on good terms for years as we crossed paths fairly often, and he had been very supportive of me in my cancer journey. His life was quite different from mine, and Jesus was very important to him, so perhaps that is some comfort to his wife and children. I am very saddened. I cannot imagine death is any easier when it comes swiftly as it did to him. I suppose he had less time to fear, but his family had less time to prepare. There are no good answers here.

Also, something I noted in my most recent re-read of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn (a novel that exists entirely for the purpose of setting up the last three words of the book, insofar as I’m concerned):

“All the worry people expend over not existing after they die, yet nary a one ever seems to spare a moment to worry about not having existed before they were conceived. Or at all.”

I like that a lot, though I can answer it well enough. Before I existed, there was no me to worry about being conceived or wonder what would happen next. Before I die, there is a me to worry about mortality, and wonder what will happen next. After I die, well, I’m just 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms looking for a place to go. My cadaver will be donated to the medical school associated with the hospital where I receive treatment, to help train future doctors. My memory will live on in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew me, whatever they think of me. And, for a while, my books and stories will yet stand on some people’s literal and metaphorical shelves. I’ll be a grace note in a few personal histories, and in two or three generations more, I’ll be little more than an entry in some genealogical tables and a footnote in the history of science fiction and fantasy.

I’m okay with that. I mean, I won’t be here (or anywhere else) to know the difference. Erase me from history, erect statues to me, it’s all the same once I’m gone. That’s atheism for you.

It’s what I do while I’m here that matters.

5 thoughts on “[cancer] Some semi-random further thoughts

  1. gustovcarl says:

    So we won’t have to erect statues? Well, good.
    Other than that, well said.

  2. hbergeronx says:

    Respectfully disagree with @cathshaffer on the idea that we are not prepared for *not knowing*. To my way of thinking, most people seem to go on the assumption that they are immortal until they’re not, and this is a very deep fallacy, a thermodynamic impossibility. Jesus people believe they are immortal after they aren’t immortal, that this is just a hydrocarbon coating on a soul to burn off in this life, but I find such thoughts highly implausible.

    The difference between the past and the future is that we can choose our impact on the latter- information increases. In a simplistic view, yes, a given hydrocarbon is just a bunch of atoms looking for a place to go, typically carbon dioxide and water. But choosing where and when to give heat and light, influencing the chain of causality, gives meaning to the consumption of that hydrocarbon. Like your last sentence says, it’s what you do here and now that matters. But that sentence seems very much at odds with the rest of the post.

    I don’t believe you’re oversharing: I believe that people who can’t honestly look mortality in the face, in its many faces, have bought into an idea that they are immortal in some way.

    The point is, eat your cake, “had” it, not have it. Today, this is how I choose to move hydrocarbons to carbon dioxide and water, how I choose to sustain my burn.

    I like the way you’ve chosen to put your light on top of a tall building, an expansive blog, for everyone to see. It illuminates us all, gives us shared meaning.

  3. Cora says:

    Oh yes, that fucking cancer victim blaming thing. Some people in the extended family apparently believe that my biological grandmother brought the breast cancer that killed her upon herself because she was permanently worried about her marriage. I really hope no one ever said that to her face while she was still alive, though certain toxic relatives kept saying it after she was dead. Interestingly enough, nobody blamed my grandfather for causing her worries, though they told all sorts of other stories about him, again conveniently after he was dead and unable to defend himself. Oh yes, and apparently the reasonable concern that my grandmother’s breast cancer might be due to a genetic predilection will cause me to get cancer, because people who worry about illnesses will get them.

    There’s a reason I don’t talk to certain family members anymore.

  4. Stevie says:


    I am certainly one person who has mentioned drama in responding to you but I am having some difficulties in following your interpretation of the words which I actually typed, thus:
    “But, speaking as someone who has walked the high wire rather longer than you have, I try to eschew the drama bit. It not only doesn’t help, it actively damages you by wasting
    mental and emotional energy which can be put to better use…”

    That was something of an understatement; I have walked the high wire for a great deal longer than you have, and I have survived far longer than anyone imagined possible. As things stand the life expectancy of someone who is immunocompromised and whose lungs are colonised by a multiresistant hypermutating strain of mucoid pseudomonas aeruginosa is, for all practical purposes, zero. But I am still here.
    Of course, I do six hours of physical therapy everyday, apart from the days when I do seven or more hours. That’s part of the price I pay in order to carry on living, and I like living.
    I eschew drama because I need to use my limited emotional and mental energy to stay alive; I don’t waste it.
    As an example, a few years back they finally got around to rigorously analysing the physical therapy I have done every single day since I was first diagnosed with severe bronchiectasis as a small child. They discovered that tipping the patient upside down in order to allow mucus to drain under the force of gravity probably had, in reality, damaged their lungs because it had resulted in acid from the stomach entering the lungs.
    I gave myself permission for incandescent rage for 24 hours whilst I processed that, and then I battened it down and started the new therapy, which takes just as long as the old therapy but is marginally less unpleasant.
    If I hadn’t battened it down I would be dead.
    I was trying to give you the benefit of my hard earned experience; clearly you didn’t see it that way. But the fact remains that you, like I, have limited emotional and mental resources and we need to use them as wisely as we can if we want to live..

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