I’ve Been Travelling, or On and Off The Road With Cancer

I didn’t plan to travel as much as I did this year, it just happened that way. And I’m not done yet. I have at least one trip, possibly two left before I put the suitcase away till next year.

It’s been very good for me, physically as well as mentally. In May, I visited Copenhagen for the first time. In June, I took a road-trip from Virginia to a college reunion in Massachusetts. In July, I spent most of a week at a festival in Spain. And in mid-August, I went to Spokane, WA for Sasquan, the world sf convention. The difference in my physical condition now compared to the same time last year is virtually miraculous. I could walk reasonable distances without collapsing. On Saturday night, I went to the Hugo Losers Party––the one given by original co-founder George RR Martin––and didn’t go to bed till four a.m. Then I was up at 9-ish to meet a friend for breakfast.

Last year at this time, I was pretty feeble. This year, I’m hopping around like an ingenue. I appear to be well, so much so that you’d never guess I had terminal cancer. A lot of people didn’t know––they thought I was in remission. It was no fun to correct them. I hated making them feel bad. Seriously; I remember what it was like to be in their shoes. I have a lot more experience being them than being terminal.

I’ve been saying that more often in the last few weeks: terminal cancer; I’m terminal; treatment is palliative. There’s about a year and four months left of my oncologist’s original two-year estimate. Where did the time go? 

Suddenly it’s September. My autumn allergies have kicked in with gusto. I haven’t made as much progress on the sushi novel as I planned (that sound you hear is God, laughing her head off). Just reading a book seems to take twice as much effort to concentrate as it used to. Even my character leaves something to be desired––despite my vow to cheer when good things happened to my fellow writers instead of giving in to jealousy, I got sniffy over someone else’s good fortune.

I’m probably going to have to die before that happens to me, I groused to my husband sulkily, then couldn’t resist adding: Oh, wait––good news! I’m going to!

And Chris, a man of intelligence, grace, and compassion, said, No, you aren’t.

Angry, jealous terminal cancer patient instantly undone by the eloquence of love.

I’ve made plenty of jokes about achieving success posthumously but none since the Diagnosis of Doom––I thought it would be too tacky. Now that I had, it was far more pathetically self-pitying than I could have imagined.

Self-pity is my instant time-out/take-a-moment/hit-the-brakes switch. I detest self-pity; it’s so easy to fall into and once you get some on you, it’s hell to scrub off. Self-pity is sneaky. One moment you’re consoling yourself after some kind of loss or defeat––could be major, like seeing a promotion or an award go to someone else––or something less consequential, like having a bad hair day and a fat day next to someone who’s just lost twenty pounds and is having their best hair day ever. (Why, God, why?) Then suddenly you’re telling yourself that of course you’re a failure––fat people with bad hair don’t get promotions or awards and you’re the reason you can’t have nice things. But you wouldn’t be that way if the world weren’t so cold and cruel to you while other people get not only everything they want but everything you want, etc., etc., etc.

(If you’re so virtuous you’ve never had an inner monolog like that, don’t even try to talk to me. Fuck off and d…don’t have fun.)

That shit isn’t me. I’m the woman who, absent a better offer, is going to teach a horse to sing in a year. I’m the woman crawling out onto the front step on her hands and knees to save her own life. I’m the woman who got so tipsy on chemo day, she pole-danced with her IV tree. I’m the woman who will tell you that everyone who woke up this morning won the lottery. I’m the woman who’s been defying the odds all her life and sees no reason to stop now. 

I’m the woman who believes we were all put on this Earth to accomplish a certain number of things and is now so far behind that she can never die (that one always makes me laugh).

Then the sun gets low and the shadows stretch. My energy starts to flag and no matter how good the day has been, I’m tired. Eventually my mind turns to finding my location on my various axes––x, y, and z, but mostly t, for time.

I feel good; I feel strong. I feel no more mortal than I felt before I took up residence in Cancerland. Everybody, every single one of us, we proceed on the basis that, all evidence to the contrary, we will live forever, and I’m no different. Hell, I’ve actually been dead and I still can’t imagine not being alive.

Maybe my thinking about how much is left of the two years my oncologist gave me is a sort of mindfulness. Sure, it’s great to be optimistic, to go all in––and all out––to defy the odds. But even optimists are subject to natural laws. Once in a while, you get a miracle but miracles are scarce, not something you can, or should, count on. 

You can work with the idea that anything is possible, and it’s probably true, more often that not. Anything…but not everything. I know, I’ve said that before; I’m old and I repeat myself––

Actually, that’s probably it––I’m about to get older. My birthday is coming up on 10 September; I’ll be sixty-mumble (I’m in my early sixty-mumbles). No, I don’t feel bad about being this old. To be honest, I’m glad I’m not younger––even at forty, I’d have been devastated at losing my hair and even more devastated by a hysterectomy. Instead, I went through a phase of ostentatious hair extensions and left my child-bearing years on Nature’s timetable. I know some breast cancer patients fifteen to twenty years younger than I am who aren’t so lucky. Fortunately they aren’t terminal––migod, how horribly unfair would that be?

Even if you’re healthy, when you enter your sixty-mumbles you start thinking about how many good years you’ve got left. You think about what you’d still like to do as well as what you never want to do again. As a writer, I think about the stories I have yet to tell and how to get better at telling them. I don’t think about stopping; I’m not going to stop. I’ll have to be stopped. Until I am, I’ll proceed on the basis…well, you know.

And now looking down the next eight days to my birthday, I feel a renewal of that strong, good, making-cancer-my-bitch feeling. Terminal? Feh. So what if I am? I can still make cancer my bitch.

Now I think of Rosemarie, my best friend from childhood. We ruled the solar system, partied with the Beatles, and saved the Earth at least once a week. Rose died of cancer in 2001. I remember what her brother Joe told me: she said it wouldn’t beat her. It might kill her but it wouldn’t beat her. She made cancer her bitch. So can I. 

I guess that’s why I’m terminal. It can’t beat me so it’s got to kill me. But it won’t be easy…and it will still be my bitch.


26 thoughts on “I’ve Been Travelling, or On and Off The Road With Cancer

  1. Do what you can so long as you can. That’s all we can do. And, best of all, every time I saw you at Sasquan, you seemed to be enjoying yourself. You really contributed to the con, and I’m very glad you were able to attend. Thanks!

  2. Thank *you*, Laurie. In fact, I had a wonderful time at Sasquan and I was glad I went. Although I was pretty tired the following week, it really did me nothing but good to be among my friends.

  3. I am so glad you’re having fun and getting to do all this traveling. I’m personally betting that you beat the odds by quite a few years, but carpe that old diem no matter what! Like you say, at our age, (mumbles) the bucket list gets narrowed down a lot. While aging has never bothered me, my 60th hit me hard with facing the reality of all the things I’ll never do unless I suddenly come into a lot of money and aren’t disabled any more.

  4. Self-pity as an “inner monologue?” You’re a better person than I am, then – my inner monologues are usually much the same as my outer ones, and they aren’t pretty. It took me ranting insanely at the unfairness of the universe about two months into my diagnosis before I glanced over at my best friend’s wide eyes and realized I was scaring the shit out of her. The woman who was there inside 15 minutes, for any reason, if I picked up the phone, who drove me to appointments and sat with me during all day-chemo when my partner couldn’t. When I told him that night that I’d scared her, and how, he looked at me with an expression that tore my heart out, and said I was scaring him, too, and he didn’t know what to do that could make it better, please tell him what he could do, he needed to know…. THAT was my wake-up call. For some of us – possibly you, and Iain Banks and Jimmy Carter and Oliver Sacks – it brings out the best in our essence. For me, I had to have the help of people who loved me just to get over myself. Maybe that’s why you’ve achieved so much more with the life you’ve been given than I have, much admiration for you, girl.

    • Hey, everybody handles it the way they have to handle it so they can get to where they need to be. If that makes any sense. Sometimes it *is* scary for the people around us. Life itself is scary anyway––if it weren’t, the makers of Xanax wouldn’t be so goddam rich.

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  6. As always, you have uncannily addressed malfeasances of thought that I (should) have been struggling with recently – and my “cancer episode” is accordingly to all evidence, over with. We beat it (my amazing medicoes and I). I’m in the sixty-mumbles with you and every time I look ahead and think, “Oh, ten, maybe fifteen more years, more if I’m lucky,” I remind myself of the ages of all those I’ve loved and lost, and realized, hell, we’re all terminal. We just don’t believe it or think about it. I admire your fierceness so much and I’m so glad you’re getting to enjoy yourself! Rock on, lady!

    • Right back atcha, Terry. Really glad you kicked that bitch to the curb.

      You’re right, of course, that nobody knows how long they have…or don’t have. But what we do have some measure of control over is the quality of that time. Even in adverse circumstances, if you’re resourceful enough, sometimes you can make a sow’s ear into a silk purse…or you can make it look like one. 😉

  7. Pat, I somehow missed that your cancer was definitely terminal. I am so sorry to hear this!

    Keep kicking its ass, will you? People here need you and aren’t ready to let go of you yet. I’d say another 20 to 30 years would be the minimum amount of time we need you to stick around.

    You are handling all of this with grace, dignity, and humor, and I so admire you for that.

    • Thanks, Adam. I plan to hold off the inevitable as long as possible. Also, I’m an Olympic-class procrastinator so who knows how long I might be able to put this off? 😉

  8. Ah, the moment when people ask about a cure, or remission, and you’re stuck bursting their lovely bubble. It’s happened to us many times since my husband’s renal cancer diagnosis (like many, once metastasized, all treatments are delaying actions, not cures). I’m glad you’re feeling well, traveling, and making cancer your bitch. All too often it’s a trade off – more time or better time?

    All the best.

    • Well, I’m fortunate in that my condition is not yet debilitating. I’ve had only one course of chemotherapy. There may be more in my future; if so, the drugs will be stronger and harsher. So I’m trying to get myself into the best possible physical condition in the hope of being able to withstand it better.

      It’s the bargaining thing. Can’t help it. I keep trying to find healthy things to make me too healthy to have cancer. It probably won’t help but it certainly can’t hurt.

      • Yep. The bargaining thing – I think we all do it. In our case, the husband is in an experimental treatment program, because surely he can be a long-lived guinea pig. Also continuing with his work, because he can’t possibly die if people on three continents are waiting for him to do stuff for them, right?

        And being healthier is never a bad thing, even if it doesn’t end up impressing the cancer (I hope it does!).

  9. Pat, I’m sorry it’s terminal. At least they didn’t lie to you and pretend that after chemo you’d be “all better.” I don’t know which is the crueler reality to live with.

    • I don’t know about anywhere else but here in the UK, that would be illegal.

      I do appreciate knowing the truth not only about my condition but also about the drugs and the side effects. There weren’t any nasty surprises.

  10. The defense objects, strenuously, to the notion that a brief moment of jealousy from someone with CANCER is a knock on your character. You get a pass for things like that. I try to avoid jealousy, but it does come up.

    I will say only a few things:
    1) I had the pleasure of meeting you at Worldcon at Literary Beer, and you were awesome. I really, really hope the diagnosis was wrong, though I get that’s probably wishful thinking. Favorite quote: “Yeah, I went twenty years without a Hugo nomination. ‘Friend: how’d you let it not get you down?’ Me: Because I’m not a p–sy.”

    2) I have bookmarked this post to remind myself if I ever start to feel sorry for myself, or lack of a paying gig, or my struggles with my own minor mental illness, that I will read this and kick my own butt.

    Thank you. Best of luck on the novel. I anticipate buying it, reading it, and congratulating you in person on it…and about that last one: I don’t commune with the dead.

    • Your good words put a big smile on my face. I’m going to feel up for the whole day now.

      While we aren’t fellow-travellers in Cancerland, we are fellow-travellers with mental illness. I’ve been taking medication for over twenty years for clinical depression. Can’t tell you how relieved I was when the doctors told me there was no problem with my continuing to take my depression meds. Because really, who wants to have cancer and be clinically depressed?

      Anyway, hang in there and don’t give up on anything. And thanks again for your good words. Your comment was the first thing I read this morning and I’m good for the whole day.

  11. Howdy Pat – I’m sorry I didn’t know you’d be in Spokane or I’d have made the trek down (only four hours south of where I live). I’m glad you went and had such a great time!

    No consolation to you, I’m sure, but of course we’re all terminal – we’re just clueless as to when. A week ago on our drive home from the coast our car intersected the path of a boulder rolling down onto the highway from a forest fire. How likely was that? Totaled the car, but the four of us came through with only minor injuries. Nothing like a truly close call to remind you to love your friends and family every day. Each close call by accident or illness could easily be the penultimate one, and one in fact shall be.

    Anyway, I miss your craziness. I’ve have had to make do with second-hand Cadigan via paper & pixel and it just ain’t the same.


    • Oddly enough, I’ve just put up a new post dealing with some of the things you mention––i.e., life as a terminal condition.

      Nice to hear from you and glad to know you and your family weren’t flattened by by boulders. Every so often, we get a reminder on the macro scale that we don’t own the world, we just live in it. Please be careful out there, okay?

  12. Pat, please keep kicking its ass for many more decades. We need all the heroes we can get!

    Here’s a double dactyl I wrote back in 2008 (and I’m still here) that I hope you’ll enjoy:

    Showed up a gland that had
    Thrown me some curves.

    Medical lit’rature
    Sends methods to yank flesh that
    Gets on my nerves.

    All the Best,
    Rick Moen

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