In third grade I learned the word vixen (in the lady wolf sense) and suddenly started hearing it everywhere. It was vixen this and vixen that for a while there, and while I’m sure most of these were really references to the sassy hussy meaning of the word, I was only eight, and would have thought they were talking about girl wolves (I loved wolves!), not girl humans. I’d probably heard the word before, but I didn’t really pay it any mind until I learned it.
Maybe I’ve been lucky up to now, but it feels like I just learned a new word and suddenly it’s everywhere. This time, the word is cancer.
And I guess I’m still luckyluckylucky, because it hasn’t hit me or my immediate family. But christ in the foothills, check out this list:
+A coworker’s husband has a glioma in his brain, which is sitting like a gorilla on his motor cortex. He didn’t get his first symptoms checked, because he’s claustrophobic and couldn’t handle the MRI. Now he faces the tube every few weeks, along with a cocktail of steroids and kindly poisons which have both taken his mobility and given it back over the last couple of years. The bigger drugs are like that: they kill you and keep you, both.
+My friend’s girlfriend fought—and won—against colon cancer, but when she woke up after her initial surgery (before the six-month course of chemo and radiation), she found out they’d taken her uterus and an ovary, too, because the cancer had spread. So when you think about how life can change, imagine waking up to that at age 34.
+One old friend here in town has breast cancer, and I have not done enough to help her yet. I need to make some freezeable food. Or take her DVDs. Maybe she’d like Buffy? She could visualize staking her vampire cancer cells. She has a son who’s only four. I can play blocks with him. I could read him stories. We could color outside the lines together.
+Another old friend is in remission from a dire combo of Grave’s disease and thyroid cancer, which stole most of last year. She’s better now, but I remember how she took care of her beloved dog Casper in his last years; he had Addison’s and diabetes and needed micro-calibrated shots throughout the day, and an intensely restricted diet, and she kept him alive through sheer focus and will. I know how hard it must have been to need such care herself, and I am so grateful she got it.
+A friend in San Francisco’s brother has a treatable form of cancer that didn’t get treated early enough. He thought the year of night sweats were just stress, and now it’s invaded his lymph, his blood. I worked in an HIV/AIDS organization for years, so night sweats would have sounded a clanging alarm in my brain, but I wonder which symptoms I’d ignore? What signs would I—do I—tell myself are just stress? We’ve each got within us a powerful reservoir of magical thinking and hopeful denial that makes it especially hard to face these things head on. Going to the doctor, we imagine, might make something real, almost as if the weight of the waiting room conjures up a diagnosis, making manifest a destiny we do not want.
There’s more. I had dinner with my honey’s dad and stepmom the other night, and we got to talking about genetic testing. She’d had breast cancer several years back, and has been in glorious remission for more than five years—victory, breathing room, a cure, even.
But since then, I’ve learned:
+My mom’s cousin’s kid just died at age 35 of a cancer so rare that only 20 people have had it. They’re burying him in Iowa once the body arrives from Boston, where he was being poked and tested and treated and not cured.
+That same mother’s cousin’s kid’s sister has cervical cancer and is on her third round of chemo. They won’t give her any more after that.
+And worst yet, I heard this morning that an old friend’s dad has an invasive brain tumor and may not last the year. It’s just been the two of them for most of her life, and I know that she won’t rest until she’s with him (and not even then, I’m afraid. She’s entered the long season of waiting; everything has changed.) So the family’s packing up and heading to his side, before he has emergency brain surgery. And I have everything crossed on his behalf, hoping hard for skillful cuts and mighty drugs, and enough time with all of them that the kids will remember their grandpa and know how much he loved them.
I learned this latest hard news on Facebook, where I’ve heard about several of these diagnoses via elliptical status updates: this person is mad at cancer, that person is so tired after they put in the shunt, this other person is thinking about blood and brothers. And it’s a funny reminder that for all the superpokes and the silliness, social networking actually keeps us engaged in the peripheries of so many lives. It lets us know when to worry, to care, to dive back in to someone’s life.
So here are my updates:
I am sad.
I am thinking about my friends and their families, about love and loss, about fighting the good fight against the hardest enemy.
I am hoping I can help, whether it’s casseroles or late-night consolation.
I am wishing I could do more.