Cancer. Now I’ve said it. Just saying it tightens up my gut. It makes me want to swallow. I look around to see if anyone can sense the anger, the blind rage that surges through me. I find myself breathing faster. The fight-or-flight chemicals prompted by fear are racing through my body. Mostly, I try not to think about it because of the instant effect it always has upon me. I don’t know about others, but I hate it. Just the thought of it makes me angry.
To me, the idea of cancer is like a living presence, dressed up in the image of death, stalking through our lives, the destroyer of health and happiness. It looks this way and that, it looks for those at whom it will swing its lethal scythe. I know it’s really like spores in the wind, poisons in the soil, air and water, or genetic predispositions hiding in our DNA, waiting for the merest provocation to flower like a deadly bloom of nightshade. I know it is like an evil charlatan that smilingly gives way to our defensive measures, only to strike back with deadly force when we have let down our guard. I know it has so many disguises and tricks that we have to learn the new ones every day that we are alive. It takes some of our best minds to keep us relevant in that battle.
I know about all the new promises, new hopes yet to be realized. We learn something new every day. But, so does cancer, reacting to counter every twist and turn we make. We are not there yet in spite of all the public promises that are made. It is not politically correct to say it, but the same promises were being made during the time cancer was a living presence in my home. So I retain the hate that I learned.
When it struck in our home, we reacted with shock. We marshaled our resources and radically changed our lifestyle. My late spouse gave up her stressful and demanding work. She was a simultaneous translation interpreter. She was the manager and creator of her own firm, one that was preeminent in Canada, but she delegated her work and ceased professional activity. She underwent a mastectomy, radiation and chemo. We changed our diet toward the completely macrobiotic and a shelf full of recommended natural products. The result – in six months all traces of the disease were eradicated! We declared victory. My spouse became a poster child, a survivor, to rally the spirits of all victims of the disease. After a year, we relaxed our guard and returned to our previous way of life.
Four or five years later, two cancer cells were discovered during the regular screening that had been maintained. The number of cells quickly multiplied and, after a time, a regular regime of chemotherapy was reintroduced, accompanied by multiple discomforts. This continued for years. No material effect on the disease’s progress was ever noted. Eventually, several metastases were discovered, until the cancer was generalized. None of the chemotherapy offered appeared to have had the least effect.
My role changed over time, as I became a full-time caregiver. Indeed, after years of feeling like a helpless bystander, there was great consolation in, at last, being able to play a useful role. I had the feeling I was witnessing hand-to-hand combat with the cancer, a living, breathing adversary. I hated the losses we were sustaining on a daily basis. The success of radiation sessions in fighting off the external manifestations of the cancer felt like victories.
At one point, the cancer prevented the kidneys from working. The doctors asked if we wanted them to intervene. Although my late wife declined, because she was suffering the effects of uremia, which impairs judgment, my resounding yes won the day. The intervention was successful. We went off on a two-week holiday in Italy. I treasure to this day the sight of her dancing to her own music on a sunny balcony in Tuscany.
The medical resort to radiation to eliminate ugly lesions that appeared, time after time, on various areas of the body, seemed like a blessing. But, the ultimate effect of these sessions was to destroy the ability of the body to produce the red and white blood cells we depend on for life. I did not understand that these were a signal that the medical profession had given up any hope of a remission, because the doctors continually talked to us of impending victory. I did not question it, full of continuing hope as I was. In effect, they were offering palliative care, while continuing to test drug combinations on my late wife.
Eventually, these blood cells could only be provided for her by external means. We learned, after a time, that these infusions of blood cells, enormously costly, were the only way to keep my late wife alive. I always assumed these would continue, but I marveled at the generosity of the system on which her life depended. The various chemotherapy combinations, with all their accompanying distress, continued to be presented by doctors as the answer and the cure. She followed every prescription faithfully in spite of the discomfort they engendered.
Suddenly, we were informed by the hospital administration that my late spouse was to be assigned to hospice care in our home. Calls to the doctors went unanswered. Any assistance I could provide was replaced by outside help. We were told that the life-giving infusions were being withdrawn. She expired after three weeks, 10 years after first contracting the disease.
I do not know if the doctors ever confided to my late wife the real state of the struggle in which we were engaged. If they did, she never shared the details with me. We never ever spoke of her impending demise.
I remain a survivor of the experience, full of anger at the caregivers, anger at my helplessness and ignorance, and full of rage against the inexorability, the implacability of the disease. Its overwhelming power in the face of our defences, even after once having been initially repulsed, gives me little faith in the happy claims of any early relief in our struggles against the disease.
I appreciate that there have been some small victories, that some conditions have become treatable instead of fatal. I am grateful for that. I appreciate that we must encourage those who are facing the challenge and the threat. I know that they, and we, have to continue fighting it like soldiers on the frontline, despite our many losses. Cancer, I hate it!
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger.