The first time I got cancer was in June 2013. It was endometrial cancer and they caught it so early, that it hadn’t even penetrated the uterine wall. There was no need for chemotherapy or radiation because there was nothing to chemo or radiate. I was fortunate. I have friends who are cancer survivors and I felt stupid calling myself a cancer survivor along with them because my cancer experience had lasted maybe a little over a month, from diagnosis to the day I went home after surgery. I had other friends who didn’t survive, Losing them was––is––a dull ache that fades some after a while but never goes away completely.
And then my original cancer come back. While I waited to find out if it was the old cancer or something new, I met with my original surgeon. He was very encouraging and optimistic. His wife had survived ovarian cancer four years ago and was still well and strong. That was good news.
Then I met my oncologist and she told me the truth about recurrent endometrial cancer.
You know all those uplifting cancer ads you see on TV about how we’re beating cancer, as many people are surviving cancer as dying from it? Yeah, we’re making a lot of progress in the fight against cancer. Unfortunately, endometrial cancer isn’t one of those big successes.
My oncologist told me that it can’t be cured or eradicated, only kept at bay for a while with chemotherapy.
“How long will I live?” I asked.
“Well.” Pause. “About two years.” Pause. “It could be less.”
It was like getting walloped upside the head with a great, big, heavy, blunt object, except from the inside. I remember my husband Chris grabbing me as if to keep me from falling out of my chair sideways. I don’t think I was but Chris knows me so well, mentally, spiritually, physically, that I probably might have if he hadn’t been there to catch me.
My mother died at 92 and no one was more surprised than she was that she had lived so long. By then, all the rest of her family was gone but then, none of them ever lived past 70 and some of them never got that far. When my mother developed breast cancer at 89 or 90, it was as if it was only one more thing going wrong because she was so old. You know: if you last long enough, something’s bound to get you. She didn’t die of breast cancer; she had a heart attack. She simply wore out.
I’m not going to start ranting about how unfair that is. I might as well go outside and yell at the weather; it will have just as much effect. I don’t feel hard-done-by. Honest, I don’t. I’ve had some lucky breaks and I’ve had some bad breaks; this would be the latter.
But at the moment, I don’t feel sick. I feel good, and I’ve lived long enough to know that when you feel good, you shouldn’t waste it feeling bad.
My mother, bless her, was a good, wonderful, even heroic person. But she spent the last ten years of her life terrified of dying. She was in relatively good health––poor eyesight and hearing, and osteoporosis had literally bent her double so she couldn’t go unless we took her in a wheelchair. But she survived not only breast cancer surgery but a partial hip replacement after a fall. She was still able to live independently in a small flat in sheltered accommodation. And she spent a decade terrified of dying. We tried to distract her; she wouldn’t be distracted. We tried to get her help; she didn’t want to be helped. There was nothing wrong with her, she said. The problem was, she was so old she could die at any moment and she was freakin’ terrified.
I don’t know about you but I think that’s a lousy way to spend ten years. Especially if it’s your last ten years.
I don’t feel terrified or pissed off at the universe or sorry for myself. The way I feel can be summed up in the following story:
Long ago, in a kingdom far away, a man is caught violating a law against something or other, and he is brought before the king, who is very proactive in the area of justice. The king is having a bad week because there’s been a crime wave recently, and even though this wasn’t a violent crime, he’s just fed up with scofflaws and criminals. So he says to the man, “That’s it, I’m going to make an example of you. You’re sentenced to death. Now. Any last words?”
The man’s lawyer begs for mercy. “Please, Your Majesty, don’t just throw away a man’s life!”
The king says, “Oh? And whats so special about this man?”
And the man says, “I can teach your horse to sing.”
Well, the king is speechless. So is the guy’s lawyer. Finally, the king says, “Is this really true?”
And the man says, “You bet! If you give me a year, I will move into the stable with your horse and give him singing lessons. A year from today, your horse can entertain the whole country with a medley of great tunes.”
The king loves his horse and he finds this idea absolutely irresistible. So he says, “Okay, it’s a deal. You move in with my horse tonight. One year from today, my horse is singing or it’s the gallows for you. Understand?”
“Got it, Your Majesty,” the man says, and the guards take him straight to the stable.
Later that night, the man’s lawyer brings his friends to visit, and his friends say, “Are you crazy? You don’t know how to teach a human to sing, much less a horse. What possessed you to make such a deal?”
And the man says, “Well, I got a year’s reprieve out of it and a year is a long time. The king might decide he was entirely too severe and commute my sentence. Or he might die and his heirs will free me because they think I got a raw deal. Or there’s the king’s daughter––she was giving me the eye. She might fall in love with me and get him to spare me. A group dedicated to social justice might take up my cause and have me out of here in six months, no further obligation. There could even be a coup d’etat and the new government will free everyone convicted of non-violent crimes.”
“And if none of those things comes to pass?” ask his friends.
“Well, you never know,” the man says, “a miracle could happen and the damned horse might actually learn to sing.”