Unless we’ve personally confronted a cancer diagnosis and experienced the challenges of treatment, none of us really know how we’d react to this horrible situation. I’d like to think that I’d be brave, hopeful, and realistic. I’d also like to think that I would most want to spend time with those I love, but not be a burden to them. Of course I’d be terrified.
I’ve been following the Facebook posts of a young woman (she’s in her late 40s) with advanced breast cancer. She’s had mastectomies, chemo, and much more. The cancer has metastasized to her brain. It appears to also have taken over her life. She defines itself by her illness. She takes countless selfies and videos of her “flat” chest; she rails against her relatives whom she dislikes because they think she’s using her cancer to get attention; she bemoans that she’s all alone in her challenging journey; she’s angry as hell at her cancer, which seems to make her angry in general.
She shares her physical reactions to her treatment and to the spreading disease in startling detail. The headaches, the vomiting, the excruciating pain. She implores people to accompany her to treatments, to order meals for her, to buy beauty products she likes.
Now here’s the thing: I abhor the idea of an illness becoming the single focus of my existence. I don’t want to live if I’m spending the majority of my time having my disease treated and then suffering from the side effects of that treatment, unable to work. I wouldn’t want to rely on anyone, especially my grown children, to help care for me because I could no longer do it alone. I would feel like I’m imposing, which has always made me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to be consumed with a disease that was literally consuming my body.
I don’t want others to feel sorry or pity for me or feel obligated to help me. I don’t want to whine about the cards I’ve been dealt. I am my mother’s daughter. That’s exactly how she felt, even after having hip surgery at 86 and developing a raging and painful infection throughout her body from diabetes. She’d repeatedly cry out “it hurts, it hurts”-in a state of delirium-but never once asked me or my sisters for help. Of course we tried to help. She died weeks after the surgery. And, I am my father’s daughter. After being diagnosed with metastasized melanoma in 1988, when doctors were the only people who’d heard of melanoma, he never complained and rued his fate. When I leaned down to kiss him in the hospital bed in his den, these were what would be his last words to me, “The one who’s having the hardest time coping with this is Gerilynn (that’s my legal name).”
I often think about Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who died a month shy of his 38th birthday of advanced lung cancer, rare in someone so young. After getting the diagnosis at 36 years old, he didn’t spend the time left to him dying. He spent it learning how to die, and he chronicled what he learned in When Breath Becomes Air, a book that should be required reading for anyone over the age of 18. You ask yourself if you could possibly look at your own impending death as bravely as Paul looked at his, will yourself to do a job you loved, decide to have a child who would never know you. Could you evaluate the meaning of your own life, as it was about to end, as Paul so stunningly assesses his?
I’ve often said I would end my own life if I knew I had Alzheimer’s. I would not want to wait until I was completely out of my mind and incapable of doing anything on my own, especially think. Cancer is another story, but if it or an equally dreadful disease dramatically changed my life, I don’t think it would be a life I’d want to live.