The other day a colleague asked if I have ever talked to my cancer. The question came from out of the blue, and I was so befuddled that I didn’t know how to answer.
No, the two of us have never spoken, I said. I start sentences, “When I was taking Chemo…” or “During my Chemo…” or “When I was bedridden…” I do not say, “When I had cancer…”
Does this mean that I consider Chemo, rather than cancer, the enemy? No. My quarrel is with the tense: “when I had cancer.” Past tense is not appropriate for discussing cancer. Then again, no rhetoric is. So I have remained fairly mute on the subject, at least in my writing.
The traditional rhetoric of cancer is martial, euphemistic, and very much anchored in references to time. People refer to battles and to survivors. People fight. People succumb. People lose. Out the other side, people tell of victory. People rally. People come together. People inspire.
People talk about cancer, but do they talk to cancer?
His question bothered me for the rest of the day. A full year after treatment, what the hell do I have to say to cancer? Serendipitously the very next day, the leader of my daily creativity class told us to ask ourselves, “What distances could I travel if I actually put parts of me together that have never spoken?” There it was: one of the reasons I was taking the class. I needed at least to try to write about my cancer.
While I was taking treatment, friends asked: “Are you writing?” What was left unsaid at the end of their question: “…about cancer?” The use of present progressive tense was naive. No, I was too weak to hold a pen, to walk down the hall. Besides, I had nothing to say. Writing about cancer–how cliché.
I sidestepped the subject instead. The day I finished radiation, I began to write: about my memory loss, about changes to my eyesight, about my fitness, or lack of it.
This very page is a sidestepping. Notice I am still not talking to cancer.
Meanwhile, when colleagues act impressed with the number of publications I have amassed in the year since finishing treatment, I shrug: “A girl with cancer doesn’t have time to be mucking around.” Present tense. So yes, I can admit that I have cancer.
In narratives about cancer recovery, artists employ the metaphor of giving, receiving, and giving back. Every day is a gift. As far as I am concerned, every day is a deadline. Tense is very much on my mind. I keep sending out manuscripts (giving) and revising them when they come back unwanted (receiving) and sending them out again (giving back). My new life is lived in present progressive tense: in search of lost time.
Cancer has taken much from me–present perfect tense–it has done so in the past and continues to do so. Aside from the Chemo ruining my short-term memory, my eyesight, my joints, and my bones, cancer will probably kill me, say in ten, twenty years. I used to think I would live into my eighties, easy. But at age 45 I learned what it was like to feel very old, and now it is nothing that I look forward to.
Nevertheless, cancer told me to get my butt out of the bed and put it in the chair. Cancer told me to quit mucking around. I may not have been talking to it, but it was talking to me. It still does.
A couple of months ago, I had to find the reprint information for a poem about mastectomy accepted for inclusion in a poetry anthology about breasts. Here’s the irony: I had written that poem when I was 22 and utterly unafraid of cancer, utterly confident about my talent and my career. Twenty-five years later, time has come full circle to bite me in the breast. When I glanced through the table of contents of the (very nice) literary magazine this poem was originally published in, I was floored. I recognized every name listed; the youngest, I was also the only one in twenty-odd years who hadn’t built a career. What the hell happened?
I stopped writing poems for a long while. “I’m tired of having nasty little epiphanies,” I explained and turned to scholarship. It wasn’t weariness. It was doubt. My creative work lacked gravitas, but I kept writing prose, assuming that I would mature into my great theme. Then along came cancer. My long-awaited “ah-ha” moment turned into an “oh shit” moment. Is it any wonder that I am resisting writing about it?
Although I live with cancer day by day, I don’t dwell on it. Instead, I dwell on my limitations. I complain about how much weaker I’ve become; lifting weights, once my great joy, makes me ache in my bones. I forget things. I repeat things. I repeatedly complain about forgetting. That phenomenon is called Chemo Brain or Chemo Fog, and it has become my new favorite catchphrase, particularly tacked onto the end of an unfinished sentence. My just-as-forgetful friends joke, “Well, I don’t have your excuse.” A year on, they all keep wondering how long I will continue to rely upon it.
Cancer is not my excuse. It just is. Present tense. There is no rhyme or reason for it. My husband said it was just my dumb luck. His sister, who died six months before my diagnosis, was way past luck. Not long after her first bout with cancer, she told me that Chemo was cruel. They gave it to her anyway. Six weeks into her third recurrence in ten years, she convulsed like Madame Bovary and died.
Since then, I’ve thought about that word a lot: cruelty. I have concluded that I was cruel between age 22 and age 45. I ignored myself, my true calling, for making a living (and a very bad one, by the way). Over the years, I have warned my students, “Don’t let what you want right now get in the way of what you have always wanted.” Present tense must convulse and die a miserable death at the hands of present perfect tense.
“We all make time for our priorities,” I tell them when they complain that their writing could have been better if only they had had more time. If only there were more time? That’s subjunctive mood, which I call the wishing tense: If only, but it isn’t, never will be, so there.
“Trust in what you love, continue to do it and it will take you where you need to go,” my writing guru Natalie Goldberg says, forever confident about the future. I even saw these words printed on a tee-shirt once, so it must be an eternal truth—the eternal future tense: “it will.” How much have I lived my life by this mantra? How much more time do I have to trust, to continue?
When along came cancer, what I wanted right then was not to die. Writing could wait. Rest, not work, was my priority. Treatment was what I dwelled upon. I could cry about how cruel it was later. The only places I went were to bed, to the bathroom, and to the hospital every stinkin’ week from October 2014 through April 2015. I didn’t talk to cancer, though I certainly didn’t ignore it. I tried hard to kill it.
Stephen King said, “You must kill your little darlings.” Just then, I had the next line, but now I have completely forgotten it in the time it took to type that last sentence. Cancer didn’t do that to me. Chemo did. But I have thanked Chemo several times for saving my life. If I ever meet the doctor who devised my treatment, I’ll take him out to dinner.
Thing is: I can’t bring myself to thank cancer yet, though my butt is back in the chair.
I’m not quite ready to be on speaking terms just yet, darling.