CANCER and COVID
A year ago a woman I’d just met and I sipped lattes and chatted about the intimate horrors of stage IV cancer. In a more care-free, pre-cancerous life, things like death and dying, fear and enraged disbelief weren’t particularly appropriate introductory material in any conversation, but there we were in our most unlucky of kinships, diving in deep.
She was a two-week cancer survivor while I was two years in. Being with her reminded me of the stunning despair I felt in the days immediately after my diagnosis. At one point she asked, how do you manage living with this?
It’s a question I’d given considerable thought by then. How do I live now that I’m carrying this previously unimaginable burden? And not just how do I live, but how do I live well? Is that even possible anymore? How do I navigate the world when the horrific reality of cancer has stolen an outsized portion of my thought life?
The best analogy I’d come up with is one I shared with her that day, and I’ll elaborate here: You know how you go to the gym, and occasionally you see somebody there who’s just utterly ripped? He’s lifting weights or she’s doing squats, and you look over and think, ‘Good God, so that’s what muscle looks like!’ and then you begin to ponder the sheer magnificence of the human form and your mind wanders to contemplate the hundreds or thousands of trips to the gym you would need to make for your body to perform in such a way.
That, I said, is going to be you. Not right away, but it is coming. Being diagnosed with stage IV cancer is like being told to walk through your life carrying the heaviest weight you can possibly imagine. Always. Morning, noon, night, 2AM, when you feel strong, when you don’t, through parenting, carpools, sex, family vacations, scans, mindless TV, work… Through it all, you’re going to carry this ridiculously heavy thing called cancer.
And people are going to look at you and think, “How on earth?” because they won’t be able to imagine carrying what you’re carrying. You’ll be like that person at the gym, lifting shit they just can’t fathom lifting. And this will happen not because the burden gets any lighter but because you learn to carry it better. Your mind-soul-spirit muscles are going to get jacked and you will teach yourself a new definition of strength.
Christmas, your kids’ birthday parties, trips to the grocery store, waiting in line at the DMV, walking the dog – there’ll you’ll be looking to the untrained eye like an ordinary member of the human species. Little do they know you possess an unasked-for superpower, which is that you can stare death in the face and shop for breakfast cereal at the same time. You can mentally dance with the thought of not living to watch your children graduate high school while you try to figure out if the dishes in the dishwasher are clean, dirty, or some combination thereof.
I have this strength. So does my friend, and so do many others I have the privilege of knowing and loving. Many of them have cancer but many more carry a burden that’s differently shaped but no less heavy. And I believe that we super-strength humans have something to say to the world about COVID-19:
You didn’t ask for this.
You’d like to live in a land of make-believe where there is no pandemic and you can have your old life back.
Bless your heart, we know.
And now you won’t wear a mask because it threatens your freedom.
God, how I wish my political convictions could create a world in which the realities of science were irrelevant. I’d join the Cancer-Free Party, an alliance of cancer patients who stop chemo treatments and refuse to get CT scans and brain MRI’s, as these things threaten the freedoms once enjoyed. (Much more, by the way, than your cloth facemask.)
We get it. The reality of COVID-19 is heavy and difficult to carry. It isn’t a burden you asked for and you would love, love, LOVE to put it down. Maybe that’s why you think and act like it’s not serious. But take it from the people around you who’ve already learned to carry unimaginable weight – ignoring the burden does not help you lift it and not lifting it will not make you strong.
Cancer and COVID-19 are just two proofs of life’s terrible fragility and unfairness. It takes so little strength to ignore or belittle these realities. But oh, when we dig deep – deeper, perhaps, than we ever have before – deep enough to find pools of power and resilience that we didn’t even know we had… When we dig deep and lift, we begin to train our minds and our spirits to bear the unbearable, and then to go on living, and living well.
I have stage IV lung cancer and I write about that here. If you're out there and you're fighting cancer, solidarity. If you read "lung cancer" and you wonder if I was a smoker, read this. Living with cancer is a daily, death-defying reality - one that pushes me to not simply defy death, but to affirm life, bless goodness, cheer for wonder, celebrate beauty... you get the idea. I hope I do that here.