Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Quote of the Week

I stumbled upon this article a while back, while I was in the midst of treatment. I remember reading it and saving it because at that moment, I felt a lot of the same things. In some ways, I still do. At the same time, many things have changed. I'm preparing to return to work, and life seems a little more normal for a bit. Nonetheless, this article reminds me of how far I've come and how much farther I still have to go.

There's Nothing Good About Cancer

by Elizabeth Ervin from Star News Online

Everyone diagnosed with cancer deserves to experience the disease in his or her own way. Some choose to be upbeat, refusing even to entertain the possibility of negative outcomes. They may go so far as to describe cancer as a positive change, one that should be embraced and for which we might feel a sort of gratitude.

Many people find comfort in such sentiments, but I can't help but be impatient with them. I was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer at the age of 41, at the peak of a wonderful, healthy life filled with friendship and travel and a loving family. Until then, the number of workdays I've missed due to illness could be counted on one hand.

None of the choices that led me to that life required a cancer diagnosis. I thank cancer for nothing.

As someone who has been branded "terminal," I understand the desire to be optimistic in the face of illness.

Some days my need to feel hopeful about my health prospects borders on desperation. But I also think that there is an odd pressure placed on cancer patients to be gracious in their suffering: to reassure others of the truth behind such cliches as "everything happens for a reason" and of the continuing fairness of the universe.

The demands of this role are too heavy for me, though. Contrary to popular myth, cancer is not ennobling; it brings me no peace, gives me no special insight into the workings of the cosmos. It compromises my dignity at every step.

My caregivers are professional, compassionate people, but having to discuss with them the intimate details of my bodily functions can reduce me to tears.

I am fortunate enough to have decent insurance, but it's still humiliating to be hounded by health care industry collection agencies for overdue bills, even when I have proof that I've actually paid them.

They don't care that I haven't collected a salary for months because the disability approval process is "really backed up"; they are unsympathetic to accidents of bureaucracy that indicate, say, that my coverage has been discontinued.

When you're presented with the likelihood of dying sooner rather than later, sitting for hours in a waiting room, even for potentially life-saving treatment, can feel like a waste of precious time.

Cancer has forced me to leave satisfying work and has profoundly altered my relationships with virtually everyone I know. It has introduced into my life not only the usual practical dilemmas of finances and scheduling but a host of existential ones as well. I used to be a person who was healthy, who did things, who could be counted on, who had ideas and interacted with the world in robust ways. Who am I now that my life is consumed by disease?

Perhaps because cancer can seem so random, people often feel a need to normalize it. Cancer, they want to believe, is just a sad but inevitable fact of life. I don't subscribe to this philosophy.

We know that smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer; sun exposure of skin cancer; synthetic estrogen of breast cancer. But we also know that it's not good to have pharmaceutical traces in our drinking water or formaldehyde in FEMA trailers.

Until we put our faith and funds into the necessary but unprofitable work of prevention, incidences of apparently "random" cancers will continue to rise.

It is difficult to live a full life while contemplating life without me in it, and yet that's my challenge and I do my best to meet it. Never one to take my life for granted, I recognize and appreciate the gifts of love and happiness that sustain me and my family. But because of cancer, I have new emotions to contend with as well: grief, anger, anxiety, and the giddy determination to see my daughter turn 7, 8, even 9.

Some days dreaming of the future feels a little like looking into the sun: linger too long and the image burns into nothingness. I do it anyway.

Don't ask me to be grateful for the opportunity.

Elizabeth Ervin lives in Wilmington.

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