The Gift that Keeps Taking

During an interview, a well-known science fiction writer (who won’t be identified–nobody likes being called out as wrong, even in a singular blog post) told me that cancer was a new disease in human history that was probably due to yet another thoughtless environmental violation of technological life.

I argued against this. I mentioned the fossil record, which shows that many species suffered from runaway cell growth. I cited some well known historical personalities who died of it, adding that though we must always be careful of “backward diagnoses”–even symptoms observed by medical professionals are not always indicative.

He insisted that before the 20th century, cancer didn’t exist. I let it go. The writer’s father had died of cancer, and, like many children who find themselves abandoned by loss, he believed that, in a different world, filled with more caring people, death would not have visited in such a horrible way.

My wife has had skin cancer for several years. Every three months she goes to a dermatologist, who zaps it with a laser, thus keeping it in check.

Then a small growth appeared on her vocal chord. It was barely larger than the period that ends this sentence. A biopsy revealed that it was cancer and, after several surgeries, it, too was removed.

Now another scan has revealed something–we don’t know what–on a lymph node. It’s time for another scan, and, perhaps, a biopsy. If it isn’t cancer…

Another person close to me thought that her breast cancer surgery had eliminated the disease. Five years later, it came back, in her bones. She was given less than a year to live.

She is still with us, on a therapeutic regimen that brings her good days, and bad ones. Exactly why she has bad days is not important. She’s here, for her husband and her grandchildren.

One of the most misunderstood obligations of growing old is showing the younger generation “how it’s done.” That doesn’t mean spreading the blues around, talking incessantly about medical procedures, being fussy about food and reminding “the kids” that what goes around, comes around.

It is more about reacting to the most terrifying of life’s challenges with grace and poise. Though some cures have been found for a very limited number of cancers, most of what the medical profession offers is, at best, an astonishingly expensive, disfiguring respite.

I don’t know anyone with cancer who “earned it.” Neither my wife nor this woman smoked cigarettes or lived near sources of radioactivity.  Perhaps we will find a cause for cancer’s effect, but, from my knowledge of the subject, it appears that causes are not limited to diet or environmental exposure. We have in our cells a series of genes that monitor growth and trigger biochemical denizens that limit or destroy potentially dangerous mutations.

As we grow older, these monitors either stop monitoring, or, just break down.

And we’re stuck with result.

What can we do? Pray? The younger people tend to look at prayer as one of a number of dubiously effective reactions to uncertainty. They eye us from a distance, assuming that, somehow, what we suffer is our fault.

So it becomes the obligation of the aging–in whose ranks I include myself–to show them how to suffer. And that is, as best as we’re able, to behave with calm dignity, a sense of purpose, a liberal display of gratitude for pleasures big and small, a gentle kindness, patience toward crying babies (I’m really not good at that!) and a civility toward those who would mock us, or just roll their eyes. If possible, we shouldn’t let them see how scared we are, how much we wish for a sudden miracle–a cure, or, at least, a person in a white physician’s coat to tell us that we’re okay, especially when we know that, even if we duck this one, sooner or later, we won’t be able to duck.

When I consider how I’ve behaved with my various illnesses–allergies, depression, knee and wrist surgeries and, most recently, two heart attacks–I find I’m not that good at holding back my anger, despair, whining, and urge to say BAD WORDS. I become blisteringly sarcastic, and bitter. None of this, I groan to myself  (though typically loud enough for others to hear), should be happening.

And yet it does, frequently without explanation, excuse or remedy. It is as much a part of life as all those goals we hope to achieve, and the sudden, happy surprises that are supposed to lurk around the bend.

How do we face the most irrational thing there is, rationally? How can we look at cancer, the gift that keeps on taking, as anything other than a monster?

I don’t know. But some people have shown me a way. It may not be THE way, and they may have far more bad days than good. But it was their choice to behave this way, and they made the right one.

Now it’s my turn.

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