I’ve had exactly one real fight in my life. It was eighth grade and after months (perhaps years) of torment from a junior high school bully I finally decided to stand up for myself and fight back. So when said bully came up behind me and hit me in the back, as he did almost every day, and called me Fatso or a Lard-ass or Girl or whatever witty nom de plume that he came up with that time, I threw down my books (with a great deal of drama) and turned to face him, fists up, ready for battle.
I threw one punch and missed by a mile. Then he beat the shit out of me.
I have a very vivid recollection of being on the school bus home, trying not to bleed on my brown pleather jacket.
I bring this up because I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails and Facebook comments congratulating me for being so brave and for having such a good attitude in the face of all this cancer stuff. A friend even went to go so far as say that I was being almost cavalier about it. Others have encouraged the fight, the battle, and the kicking of cancer’s ass, a phrase I even used a couple of months ago when I first found out.
If I may once again stretch the definition of a word to its breaking point, the “funny” thing about all of this is that I feel neither brave nor cavalier. I don’t feel cowardly or particularly enthused about it either. Those who know me well know that I don’t have a good attitude about anything, ever, generally speaking, but in this case I also don’t think I have a necessarily “bad” attitude about it. I definitely don’t feel like I’m fighting but at the same time, I don’t feel like I’m running away. Well, not yet.
For the last two months I’ve had ups and downs and lots of sideways but through it all what I have mostly had is me.
I don’t really buy into the theory that cancer changes a person. Instead, I think it amplifies us – it turns up the volume on the parts of our personality that were there all along. It presents a situation in which who we are is a little more obvious than what we show of ourselves in our normal, everyday lives. People who were inherently brave before will act bravely as they deal with cancer, it’s just that we haven’t really noticed their bravery before because they never had some sort of major hurdle to get over that required a show of it. There have been no busloads of nuns and orphans stuck in rising floodwaters to be rescued, so to speak.
I also don’t agree with the whole good attitude/bad attitude thing; that somehow the former is a requirement for survival and the latter is a death sentence. The late Molly Ivins, a delightfully mouthy columnist who wrote frequently of her cancer travails, once said “I suspect that cancer doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether you have a positive mental attitude. It just sits in there multiplying away, whether you are admirably stoic or weeping and wailing. The only reason to have a positive mental attitude is that it makes life better. It doesn’t cure cancer.” Amen, sister.
And lastly – and this is really important – I don’t think dealing with cancer is a fight or a battle. That implies that there are winners and losers and that somehow those who lose are to blame; that if they had only fought harder they could’ve kicked cancer’s ass. Mary used to call it her “tribulations” and I’m glad because the fact that she died should not imply in any way that she didn’t fight as hard as the person with breast cancer who survived.
I used that ass-kicking phrase when I was first diagnosed and now I regret it. I have learned that cancer is more complicated than those kinds of platitudes. There are many more shades of grey in between those black and white castings of good, bad, brave, coward, win, and lose. At least it is for me.
That’s also important… everyone deals with cancer differently and there are no rights or wrongs. Well, if cancer makes you do crazy things like wear black shoes with a brown belt or vote for Mitt Romney, then honey that’s just wrong, but in the sassy gay sense of the word not the literal one. So to all of you who have had cancer or all of you who may get cancer, if you need to put on your boxing gloves and a big smile to face it then go for it. Likewise if you need to curl up in a ball and scream “Why me?” over and over, then that’s a valid choice also. Annoying for those around you, but valid nevertheless.
For me, I’ve had moments all over the emotional spectrum. I’ve found ways to laugh and keep myself entertained but I’ve also cried and cursed and raged. It’s just that I’ve mostly done it all in private because that’s who I am. I can write about anything – just wait until the post about the bowel prep I have to go through before the surgery – but expressing those kinds of inner workings in front of other people? I don’t do that. You can blame my WASP-y upbringing or you can call me emotionally stunted, but again, that’s just who I am. I’m a fairly even-keeled kind of guy – I prefer to just get things done without causing a great deal of fuss about it. Having cancer hasn’t changed that, it has merely amplified it.
On the other hand, my experience so far with cancer has been primarily a mental one. I haven’t had to go through chemo or radiation or any of the other horrible things that people with cancer have to deal with. So far the worst thing that has happened is hearing a Muzak version of “Sussudio” while on hold with a doctor’s office. That nearly killed me.
So we’ll see what happens after the surgery. It scares the crap out of me (literally – did I mention the bowel prep?) and if it is as bad as I believe it’s going to be, one of my other dominant personality traits will most likely come out – I do a LOT of bitching, moaning, and whining about things. You have been warned.
Now having said all this, I definitely appreciate the encouragement and thoughts and prayers. Yes, I even appreciate the prayers. Those who know me well know that I often rail against organized religion and don’t have a “spiritual” bone in my body but I understand that God and prayer are important to a lot of people and that it gives them comfort so it’s definitely okay with me. I put all of it in the same bucket… well-wishes, happy thoughts, prayers to God, good vibrations, good juju, mystical energy from the alien overlord Xyrglyph… I’ll take it all.
Lovely post. My husband is a cancer survivor. He feels what changed the most for him was his perspective on what in life mattered to him. He and his family have both told me of the roller coaster of emotion they all endured. When I read these posts, all I can think is “HOW CAN HE STAND ALL THIS STUPID WAITING?!” That is the part that just makes me barking mad, and I really hate it on your behalf. We ultimately deal, somehow, with all life throws at us. But Tom Petty is certainly correct, the waiting is the hardest part.