Christopher Hitchens died a few days back from his cancer and while I was mainly neutral on his work, I did develop an affinity for him as we both underwent our dramatic diagnosises with advanced cancer in the Spring of 2010. He chronicled the strange journey so well that I could relax in my own attempts to describe it. His initial Vanity Fair column on his cancer became one I referred many a friend to, then and now, for being so spot on.
He describes the original process of calling in emergency help, “…but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”
“The new land is quite welcoming in its way. …the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication…
He wryly notes, “In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist. To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
And then with these closing paragraphs he captures the odd bargains, suffering and causes an advanced cancer patient faces when they know how the story ends and yet vie bizarrely for more time. “The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade. Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.
Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”
So Christopher Hitchens publicly ‘lost the battle’ on December 15th 2011, a battle more accurately lost on the day of his diagnosis.
It’s been a long silence from me on the caring bridge site. And not one of those good silences but one where I have tried to decide what is my mood as I face ‘livingly dyingly’ (again in Hitchens’ words) with suspended despair. I don’t want to waste my time with sadness but dang, recurring so fast and with the first choice drugs not available, it is hard not to feel a steady drum beat off in the shadows.
But I do apologize for being so lame at getting out an update. Many days I try but before I can decide what to say I have lost my limited energy. I could say ‘I am fine’ because basically I am fine for a stage iv ovarian cancer patient in her first recurrence. I could confess how hard this reentry into chemo land has been; bore you with my medical woes that have seemed endless this round. But I don’t want to dwell in my pain for a moment longer than I have to. Soon I have a good day or hour and I am caught up in appreciating those moments. “How am I?” is a volatile question that I rarely know the answer to.
I have loved these short, dark days of late Fall. As the solstice approaches to mark the return of light I have mixed feelings. A marker I have so long relished I now wonder if I am up to. But I suspect I will be. This week, a week of relative good health because my chemo was delayed yet again due to low blood counts, I actually started pulling out some projects, making lists, test driving my brain and finding some traction. With the help of so many of you, I remember to put one foot in front of the other and find that I can get somewhere and that’s not bad.
Mike and I did manage to visit my relatives in Holland prior to starting chemo – a lovely sendoff. Our other jaunt was to a cancer retreat that reminded me yet again that the patient and primary caregiver face equally huge burdens, so, as always, a huge shout out to my beloved Mike.
lots of love and happy holidays, marcy