A very dear (and possibly quite intoxicated) friend emailed me this afternoon with a link to Christopher Hitchens’ beautifully worded essay about his cancer diagnosis, saying it reminded him of my writing. While I am highly flattered, and definitely aspire to that level of proficiency (not to mention professional success), the essay did strike a number of chords.
Hitchens speaks of the discovery of his illness as “…a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” This international one-way trip is the most shocking transition, especially for people (henceforth known as “patients”) who were previously healthy and unencumbered by medical interventions any greater than the occasional Advil. With diagnoses like ovarian cancer, what you think at first will be just a brief visit turns out to be a longer stay, with an extendable visa that might last the rest of your life.
For the past few years, I’ve envisioned myself as I always was: a mom, wife, cook, fashion fiend, friend, sister — exercising, writing, cleaning, driving, living my life — who also happened to have cancer. This summer, however, the paradigm has shifted. Now I feel like I’m a cancer patient who also occasionally writes, walks the dog, folds laundry, and makes dinner. My treatment and attendant side effects have gotten more insistent, more interruptive. I have to have my daily meds, straight from refrigeration or a cooler, at the same time every day. Within three hours, I need to be near indoor plumbing. By mid-afternoon, I need a nap. Water tastes horrible, so I have to bring my own beverages. Comfy shoes. Short walks and a place to sit down. (I’m starting to sound like my grandmother. Who’s 103.) I can no longer be the same person I was in that other country.
A part of me longs for the early stages of my illness again, that optimistic sense of purpose and determination, the adrenaline-charged vigor of the attack. Like a Saturday morning, the future was still hazy but full of potential; the fear of the unknown can be enervating but at least it’s a plan. Hitchens is starting chemo for his esophageal cancer, and I wish him health and strength to get through the journey. I miss the innocence and blind optimism and faith in medicine that carried me through that first summer with cancer. But the wisdom and perspective of the ensuing years I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Okay, maybe a clean CT scan. Or a book deal. Hitchens? Throw me a bone, eh?
Photo credit here.