It’s the end of 2016 but it’s not the end of my life. Well, universe, I told you so.
Back at the end of December 2014, when my oncologist told me the prognosis was two years, possibly less, I told myself to look it square in the face. But the first thing that came to mind was the fable about the condemned prisoner teaching the horse to sing. (You can find it here.) The condemned man only had one year–I had two. I don’t know how things worked out for him, whether he got a pardon or a talented horse. But my horse seems to have perfect pitch. Who knew?
To be honest, though, I never really believed I’d be checking out at the end of 2016, not deep down. According to the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Dying and Grief, this would mean I was stuck at the first stage: Denial. The others are: Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. But cancer patients are angry, whether they’re terminal or not–it comes with the territory. Recovery is a struggle and when you’re struggling, you’re not always even-tempered. Okay, maybe some people are so even-tempered and sweet-natured, they’d rot your teeth. Not me–I had to apologise to good people for behaviour I considered unthinkable when I was well.
There was Bargaining, too, and there still is. Each time I’ve seen my oncologist, the cancer level in my blood has dropped a little more. If I eat right, if I exercise, if I keep taking the hormones, if I do everything I can to stay healthy, can I keep this devil down in the hole?
As for depression––I’ve made no secret of the fact that I take medication for clinical depression. These are not happy pills, they don’t have me walking around in drug-induced euphoria. This is medication that allows me to experience appropriate emotions so I can think coherently, write, and behave like a real person rather than sleeping for twenty hours a day and crying for the other four. To me, depression means being unable to cope, with anything. So if it’s all the same to the Kübler-Ross school of thought, I’d like to skip that stage altogether. I was depressed for so long, I feel like I’ve already been there and I don’t care to go back.
Which brings us to Acceptance. I suppose if I never got past Denial, Anger, and Bargaining, I’m still pretty far from Acceptance. But seeing as how life is the terminal condition we all share, aren’t we all? The fact of our own mortality is something we take for granted–Valar Morghulis!, as the Braavosi say (I love the whole idea of the Braavosi; I still have a crush on Syrio Forel and Miltos Yerolemou, the actor who plays him; I even got to meet him once. But I digress).
At the same time, however, most of us don’t feel mortal. We might be tired all the time because there’s always some crisis to take care of or some fire to put out, and even when we’re not besieged by serious crises, we’re getting pecked to death by ducks. But we don’t feel our own mortality. We know it intellectually but not viscerally–not ‘way down deep. As I’ve said before (probably more than once, because old people repeat themselves), we proceed through our daily lives as if, despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re going to live forever. We may not be thinking about how we’ll spend the winter holidays in 2216, but most of us don’t look at time that way. For most of us, yesterday’s over, now it’s today, and then it’ll be tomorrow, rinse, repeat forever. Even when you’ve got a deadline, you count from the day you’re at toward the deadline, not vice versa. (That’s my experience, anyway; your mileage may vary.)
In late December 2014, I had a theoretical deadline: late December 2016, give or take. And it was about a year ago––give or take––that I realised the theoretical deadline was no longer in force. Once again, I could live like I’d never die––twelve weeks at a time, at first, now increased to sixteen. I buy green bananas a month longer than I used to, stopping at the end of week 13. Not because I feel more mortal but to remind myself that the infinity in my grain of sand has a 16-week boundary.
Well. I’m not going to check out any time soon, and yet here I am, dwelling on something that isn’t going to happen, that I in fact never quite believed would happen anyway. Never believed on a gut level, that is. But the science geek in me did the research and I was well acquainted with the facts. I knew what I was up against. But what I also learned was that the results were not identical for everyone––some women did live longer than two years, even women with my form of recurrent uterine cancer, which has the worst prognosis. Obviously, a prognosis is not something carved in stone. And in everything I read was the statement that while this might be incurable for now, it is treatable, and has been treatable for many years. If I could hold on for two years, medicine could have progressed to where the prognosis had changed to five years. And five years beyond that, clinical trials might have produced a cure.
This is not silly wish-fulfilment fantasy optimism on my part. At the worldcon in Kansas City, a few of us fellow-travellers in Cancerland did a panel about living with cancer. One beautiful lady has stage-four lung cancer. You’d never know it, though, because she’s doing great––clinical trials pay off. In fact, over thirty years ago, my Aunt Loretta (one of my mothers) agreed to be in a clinical trial for a breast cancer drug. That drug is Tamoxifen. On her behalf, you’re welcome.
Rational optimism notwithstanding, however, I still remember how the last months of 2016 were projected to be the last months of my life and…well, I can’t help gloating. Who am I gloating at? Cancer, of course. Who else?
These days, I’m thinking not so much in terms of a singing horse as I am the story about the two people in the forest being chased by a bear. One of them stops and puts on fancy running shoes. The other person says, ‘Do you really think you can outrun a bear?’ And the first person says, ‘No, I only have to outrun you.’
I picture me and cancer being chased by a bear called Annihilation. It’s going to get one of us first, and I’m hoping thanks to current clinical trials and the latest developments in immunotherapy, that will be cancer, not me. All I have to do is last long enough. All I have to do is outrun cancer.
Maybe I won’t. But I might. Besides, what else have I got to do?