In the wake of Donna Summer’s and Robin Gibb’s deaths of cancer, there was a wave of protest in the cancer Twitter community, about an obituary phrase that most people probably take for granted: “lost his (or her) battle with cancer.” Many cancer survivors hate that phrase. One of them, Jenni Murray, writes at the Independent why Robin Gibb didn’t lose his battle with cancer.
I’m at a loss to know why, despite a number of us who’ve been through the dread diagnosis and subsequent treatment pointing out that such pugilistic terminology is entirely inappropriate, we continue to be given the impression that death from cancer is somehow an indication of failure to have the moral fibre to fight and defeat it.
I read this and thought of my grandfather, Evangelos Gazis. Grandfather lost his battle with death, to borrow a phrase from those obituaries for people who die of cancer, on December 7, 1940, at the Kalamas River, in northern Greece, and in doing so helped Greece to win its war with Italy. An officer in the Greek Army Engineering Corps, he was supervising the reconstruction of a bridge, so that Greek soldiers could drive the Italians out. But Greece, as we all know, did not win WWII. Italy’s defeat was followed by the arrival of the German army, and against that force, little Greece could not stand, any more than Poland could.
If, in regular, non-metaphorical battles, the battle isn’t always to the strong, still less is it always to the brave, or to those with moral fiber. I neither resonate with nor hate the “battle” metaphor for cancer; I use other metaphors in my own head, but don’t wince at “lost his battle” the way Murray does. But if you think of living with cancer as a battle that can be won or lost, remember that in non-metaphorical battles, sometimes you’re Great Britain fighting Germany in WWII, ravaged by bombs but still able to see your way to victory, and sometimes you’re Poland or Greece fighting Germany in WWII, so outgunned that no amount of courage and moral fiber will see you to victory.
If I should “beat cancer” while Steve Jobs “lost his battle,” it may be, at least in part, because I sensibly got the surgery as soon as I was advised to, while he sought fruitless natural remedies. But it will also be because endometrial cancer is one of the more treatable cancers, while pancreatic cancer is one of the less treatable ones. So perhaps, in relation to the virulence of our cancers, it will turn out that I was Great Britain, Steve Jobs was Poland, and the columnist who just wrote about living for nine days with the least malignant of skin cancers was the US sending troops to Grenada.
And none of us got to choose our starting position. Or at least, we chose it only to a limited degree; we got the chance to do things that might promote our health, but we didn’t get to pick how virulent a cancer we might face. Just as Greece, before WWII, carefully built its fortifications to defend itself against its neighbor Bulgaria, did its best to keep troops strong enough to defend against Turkey, and even prepared well enough that it won a surprise victory against Italy, we may prepare for a “battle with cancer” as well as we humanly could, and still face a cancer too strong for us. In fact, for some cancers, no one is Great Britain.
Still, as Damon Runyon once said, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” So, though I now have cancer despite the fact that I didn’t smoke, stayed thin, exercised every day, and ate my vegetables, if you ask me what to do to avoid cancer, I’ll tell you not to smoke (it’s the single risk factor over which you have the most control), to exercise, and to eat your vegetables (we don’t know how far diet and exercise affect your risk, but there’s some evidence that people who are physically active have less risk, some cancers are associated with obesity, and some evidence that fruits and vegetables may lower your risk of some kinds of cancer). (More on cancer prevention here: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/prevention/overview/patient/page3 .) And your odds of dying young will be somewhat reduced.
Yours odds of dying of cancer in the end may be less reduced, because cancer is also a disease of age. We all keep our appointment with Samara in the end. In the end, we are all Greece in WWII, in our metaphorical battle with disease and death, only here there are no Allied troops to free us from occupation (unless, indeed, there is a second round that we can’t now see, and One who conquers death on our behalf). “Growing old, I breathe in. Knowing there is no escape from growing old, I breathe out. Dying, I breathe in. Knowing there is no escape from death, I breathe out.”
Still, I hope to postpone my own death for decades more, and so, my first part of sandwich treatment done, I now prepare for radiation therapy. My mother spent a week with me during the interval between chemotherapy and radiation, helping us to get our condo in order again. I would go to work, my first full week back, and return home to find that she and Joel had cleared boxes, and that Mom had carefully arranged my clothes in stacks, by kind, for me to go through and pick which to keep, and which to discard. The dog offered her instant love, and took her on walks, while the cat slowly learned not to hide from her, and Joel took her to some restaurants with food more available in California than in Maine. Monday we saw her off again.
This week, I got my tattoos. This is part of the preparation for chemotherapy. First comes the bowel prep. I already went through a bowel prep before my surgery, and was hoping I could avoid another for years, but no such luck; on Tuesday, I went through my second bowel prep in less than three months. It involves drinking only clear liquids the day before, and drinking a bottle of magnesium citrate. The magnesium citrate has a terribly strong flavor that tastes vile, presumably to conceal another strong flavor that’s even more vile (I pick lemon for my strong flavor, as more tolerable than the others). My pharmacist has advised chilling it first and using a straw, to taste it as little as possible; diluting it heavily with water (of which you’re supposed to drink a lot along with it anyway) also helps. The last time, I made the mistake of alternating between the magnesium citrate and the water, and could barely swallow it. This time, I mixed them, weakened the taste, and drinking it went better.
Everyone has a slightly different set of bowel prep instructions. Some say to avoid red Jello (possibly because it may make you think you’re bleeding), some not. My gynecological oncologist had me taking the magnesium citrate the morning of the day before, while my radiation oncologist had me taking it the evening before. Since for me it takes about six hours (longer than for most people) to feel the full effect, and then hours more for the effect to run its course, drinking the stuff at 5pm meant that I kept waking up in the middle of the night, got little sleep, and had my last run to the bathroom at 6:30am. So, at 8:30am, when the instructions said that I was supposed to take an additional Fleet’s enema, I decided that I couldn’t make myself do this on top of what I’d already done, and couldn’t need it only two hours after I’d already been emptied. I skipped the Fleet’s enema. Bad cancer warrior! I did drink two glasses as instructed to fill my bladder, though.
At the pre-op appointment, they make a mold to hold you in, shoes and all. (I was asked if I would wear my hiking boots every day. The answer is yes.) I was instructed that I would need to have a full bladder for all my daily treatments (but mercifully no more bowel preps). Then I was sent into the tunnel for scans. The scans are not diagnostic. They are to show them how my various internal organs are positioned, so that they can properly aim the radiation. After the scans, I got three very small tattoos, so that they’ll know how to position me. Hopefully God will excuse this violation of Leviticus 19:28. At least I haven’t gotten a tattoo quoting Leviticus 18:22 to condemn homosexuality. Then I got my slip for bloodwork. I am to start radiation on Tuesday of the first week of June, and should get a CBC the Thursday or Friday before.
That evening, our new maid brought over a woman from her church who prays over people who are sick (my anthropology major husband calls her a curandera). They laid their hands on me and prayed, mostly in Spanish, though our maid translated some bits to English for me. I caught words here and there: Lord, Jesus, cancer, death, health, freedom. I think she also named saints, for I heard “Maria.” Then she pulled out a Bible in Spanish, and asked me if I had one in English, to follow along. I have an abundance of Bibles, but most of them were still packed in boxes in the garage. So I ran upstairs to fetch the small pocket Bible, King James edition. I had found it in one of the boxes that we had already processed, and thought I might give it away, for I have multiple King James Bibles, and less need for a pocket Bible now that I have the Kindle. But it proved just the right thing to have on hand. Our maid’s friend looked for a passage in Isaiah, and I remembered that in Luke Jesus starts his ministry by reading just that passage from Isaiah, so I found it in Luke. And we read, first her in Spanish and then me in English.
17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
They prayed over me some more, and left, telling me that they would come back any time I asked. And I got my Greek interlinear New Testament from the box where it was stored, found where I had been reading it, a little a day (I am now in the middle of Galatians), and put it back on the shelf.
Next week, my sister arrives to help. This weekend, we go through more boxes of books. With luck, it will not be too long before I can park my car in the garage again.