On cancer

My mother is a cancer survivor. During my third year of university, we learned that she was suffering from ductal carcinoma in-situ, a slow form of breast cancer that was undetectable by self-exam or mammogram. In her case, it took a stubborn doctor and a galactogram to diagnose her. Another family member had been diagnosed a few years earlier with another form of breast cancer.

That same woman now has stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Another has leukemia. Just last week, I learned that a dear friend had dodged the cancer bullet.

That’s why I relish deceased NDP leader Jack Layton’s final letter to Canada, written before he succumbed to his latest round of cancer:

Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

This year has been a hard one. I’ll explain why in greater detail some other day. But I am proud to say that I am happier now to be alive, to be working and living and creating, than I have ever been. I cherish life in a way that I simply did not, before.

Someone else I know killed herself recently. The news came as a shock. I cried for a solid hour, until my face swelled and I couldn’t breathe. As a person who has felt suicidal in the past, I finally understood the rage and hurt that choice means for the people in one’s life. And I felt some measure of the frustration that my defeatist attitude must have given others, earlier this year and throughout my life. When someone later told me about suicidal urges, my reply was: “If you choose to abandon me like that, I will know our relationship meant nothing to you, and I will never, ever forgive you.” It was harsh. It was probably even cruel. It was also true.

I have been scared for a lot of my life. Scared of different things — the monsters in your closet change shape, over time — but still frightened. Sometimes, it seems easier to do nothing at all than to do something and risk doing it wrong. Sometimes I’ve thought that the world would just be better off without me in it. But it doesn’t matter, I’ve always thought, because I’ll probably get cancer, anyway.

I let this presumed illness get me before I ever got it. Like the little boy in The Secret Garden, convinced that dying slowly in a darkened room was better than living briefly in the sun, I let myself assume that death was just around every corner. And not just death, but failure. Mistakes. Being wrong. In short, the inevitable. And I realize now that there’s no use being scared of the inevitable.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

2 thoughts on “On cancer”

  1. Thank you so much for this posting. It has been a year since my brother took his own life and I still grieve that loss. Your words are most appropriate and hopeful. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. You’re very welcome! It was a really personal post, but I hoped that it would help someone out there. I had no idea I’d receive confirmation so quickly! Thank you!

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