You’re Cancerful! (A Public Service Announcement from The Brain Chancery)

You’ve got cancer — congratulations!  I say that as a joke, but the actual funny thing is this:

Whenever I hear a friend mention lately that someone they know has cancer, the first thought that runs through my head (I’m not kidding now) is something like this:

“Hooray!”

I think this every time.  It’s a gut reaction, it just happens.  I get happy for a nanosecond.  Why?  I wondered that myself.  I think it’s because, for a nanosecond, it makes me feel like I’m not alone.

One of the hardest things about having cancer (and there are at least 3… 4… maybe 750 very hard things) is that it’s extremely isolating.  It makes you feel really, really fucking alone.  Or at least it made me feel that way.

Now, there are loads of different types of alone-ness, and (thanks to my wonderful cancerless friends and family) very often I’m with people I love, and I am happy, and I don’t feel alone at all.  But even in those times, I’m alone with having brain cancer.  And that’s hard.  Sometimes it’s even harder when you ARE around people you love.  Because try as they might (and oh do they try, and oh am I glad that they try!) they don’t– they simply just can’t (and that’s not their fault!)– know what it’s like.  And they don’t know what to say, and you don’t know what to say, and it’s impossible to completely ignore because it’s on your (cancerful) mind constantly so you just can’t ignore it as much as you (and they) might want to.  And it’s really lonely having to figure all of this out, and deal with it, and not completely freak out, all by yourself.

Even if I was lying in bed with the love of my life (unless it was Dutch) I would still be alone with my cancer.  (Unless the love of my life had cancer too, in which case that sounds like a doomed but pretty hilarious and secretly awesome kind of relationship.  Two lovers!  Dying of brain cancer at the same time!  There’s my next movie!  Now I’m totally kidding!)

I don’t say any of this to complain or beg for sympathy, nor do I say it to try to trump whatever burdens you cancerless (or cancerful!) readers might have.  I’m sure your burdens are heavy, difficult, and in some rare instances untrumpable.

I say all of this, instead, to tell people who might be reading this who feel alone with their cancer one important thing:

You are not alone.

In fact, if you do have cancer… smile, because I do too!  And it sucks!  It sucks!  Doesn’t it suck!?  What a pain in the ass!  I’m quite sure we can both agree on that.  And at least BOTH of us have it!  And we’re not the only ones!  (See, right there, for that nanosecond, neither one of us was alone with this.  Wasn’t that nice?)

Now, I’m not one for support groups, just as I’m not one for looking up medical advice/information on the Internet (clearly I’m also relatively alone in that regard).  And I’m sure support groups can be great, and very helpful, for a lot of people.

But for ALL of us Cancerful people…

(Did I just coin the word “Cancerful”?  Regardless, can we all start using it all the time pretty please because it’s awesome?  It’s not “I have cancer.”  It’s “I am Cancerful!  Are you?”  God I love that.)

Shit, where was I… (goddamn hole in my brain and proclivity for parantheticals)… oh I remember!

But for ALL of us Cancerful people…

WE, THE CANCERFUL, CAN’T LIVE IN A SUPPORT GROUP ALL DAY EVERY DAY.  (Even though we kind of need to.  Because we have cancer all day, every day.)

That’s why we need you: our friends, our family, our dogs, our other loved ones (mammalian and otherwise) to be our all day, every day support group.  We need your help with this.  We can’t do this all alone.  And we know that’s hard for you, but guess what?

IT’S HARDER FOR US.

(WARNING:  I’m aware I’m pulling the cancer card.  And I’m pulling it hard, because I’m not pulling it for myself.  {If I was pulling it for myself I’d pull the BRAIN CANCER card, which totally trumps all the other wimpy cancer cards out there. [Definitely, absolutely, 100% kidding on that one.  My cancer is really scary and really shitty but I’ve also been really, really lucky.  And the Pancreatic Cancer card is the ace of spades.] }  Anyway, I’m getting buried in parentheses, so here we go let’s get out of here…)  Whew!  Now where was I?

HAVING CANCER IS HARDER FOR THE CANCERFUL THAN IT IS FOR YOU.
That’s just true.  And I will tell you the #1 reason why it is true, right now:

Imagine yourself as the hub at the center of a wheel, with spokes shooting out in all directions.  Each one of these spokes represents one of the many relationships in your life:  each is the connection between you and the people you love, or like, or even just know.
Now look at this rudimentary drawing that my wonderfully talented (for a dog) dog Dutch the dog just whipped up for me…

The Wheel of Cancerful Relationships

The Wheel of Cancerful Relationships

In this drawing, “The Wheel of Cancerful Relationships”, let’s say that the color BLUE represents CANCER, and the color GREEN represents… not cancer.  Let’s also say (for the sake of argument) that while it’s not easy being GREEN, it’s even uneasier being BLUE.

Why?  Because when you’re Cancerful, 99.9% of your relationships, no matter how big or small, are suddenly and powerfully and inexorably defined and weighed down by a heavy, heavy burden: the blue burden of CANCER.  When you’re Cancerful, every time you talk to anybody you love, or even just know (like the guy at the sandwich shop) the first thing that they probably think about when they see you is… can you guess?  Bingo:  CANCER.

YOU, on the other hand, when you see any of those people, the first thing you WANT to think about is anything BUT cancer.  Because you’re already thinking about it ALL. OF. THE. GOD. DAMNED. TIME.  But now, every time you see somebody, either they don’t know what to say, or you don’t know what to say, or you feel bad that you know that they don’t know what to say and you don’t want to be a burden you just want to be a son or a friend or the guy buying a sandwich, but you can’t.  You have cancer.  You’re that guy now.  And it gets so tiring.  So very, very tiring.

But if you’re GREEN, you’re in luck!  Because you get to talk to people all the time who don’t have cancer.   And you don’t have cancer either, so look how many of your relationships are green!  Most of your lines have nothing to do with cancer!  Of course, a few of you greenies know somebody else who has cancer, but that’s only one other blue line.  You’ve still got all those easy green ones!

But for me, for us, for the Cancerful, we don’t know anybody who doesn’t know that we have cancer.  For the Cancerful, it’s all blue, all the time.

When you’re Cancerful, you never get a break from it.  Ever.  Except for 2 instances, which you might be able to spot in the diagram:

1) Your dog, who is both the love of your life and your best friend, and who doesn’t give a shit you have cancer because she doesn’t even know what that is.  That relationship is totally green.  No cancer in there at all.  And…

2) Uncle Joe, who also has cancer, and who is in the center of his own BLUE Wheel of Cancerful Relationships.  Uncle Joe knows EXACTLY what the fuck you’re going through, without even having to think about it.  And when you see him — the times I’ve seen him over the past 2 years — it’s been so nice, because it’s like I can finally sigh with relief that I’m not alone and that he gets it, 100%, and we can just stand there and have a beer and talk about baseball or (even better) joke about having cancer in a way that makes most people who don’t have cancer a little freaked out.
In other words, when I’m hanging out with Uncle Joe (or even just thinking about him), that pesky one way that I’m always alone just disappears.  And it feels really good.  And I’d like to thank my Uncle Joe for teaching me that.  And for having cancer at the same time as me.  He made me feel a lot less alone with it.  And I love him and I’m gonna miss him.

So for those of you who are mostly, if not all, in the GREEN, the reason I wanted to write this was to ask a favor of you (and I’m directing this mostly at people I don’t know, since those of you I do know I’ve probably already lectured enough about this and lots of other crap.  Thanks for putting up with me :)…

If you know someone who has cancer, remember first and foremost that while the line between you is now BLUE, and that makes it hard for you, it makes it hard for them too.  And they don’t have any green lines at all.  None.

So if there’s anything you can do to make ONE of their blue lines (the one that connects you) a little lighter, a little softer, a little happier, more supportive, caring, hilarious or most importantly a little STRONGER… please just do that!  Please!  Just do it!  Because all those blue lines are pulling really hard on your Cancerful friend, and it’s making them really tired.  They’re probably trying really hard to just stay alive, and if all those blue lines could suddenly become something that’s lifting them up, supporting them, and helping them to feel happy and safe and not alone and even more ALIVE while they are still alive… well… then you’re curing them a little bit, even though they still have cancer.

And that’s pretty much the best possible gift you could ever give them.

***

 

PS:  This one’s for Uncle Joe.  I just found out he passed away ten minutes ago, while I was writing this.  And his beautiful son and beautiful daughter, my brother Patrick and my sister Karen, have been by his side this whole time, lifting him and laughing with him and just being together with him, and helping him feel alive while he was still alive.  They’ve been curing him this whole time.

And that’s pretty much the best possible gift they could have ever given him.

Rest in peace, Uncle Joe.  I love you, and we’re all gonna miss you.

Uncle Joe

Incidentally…

The MRI on Tuesday looked good.  My brain looks clean.

A few days before that, on January 2nd, I finished the thing I’ve been desperately trying to finish in the event that I’ll soon be finished.  I’m extraordinarily proud of it.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m ready for it, excited about it, and so unbelievably thankful and aware of how lucky I am that I’ve managed to get this far.

And a few days before that, on December 28th, it was my birthday.   I turned 38.  To celebrate, I ran a marathon.  For the first time in my life.  In Newfoundland.  In the snow.  Mostly by myself, and mostly on the side of a highway.  It was pretty awesome.

Turns out writing can cure cancer.  And so can running.

More on all of this to come…

Trans Canada Highway east, somewhere around mile 10

Trans Canada Highway east, somewhere around mile 10

Cure Your Own Cancer! Write All About It!

It’s funny to think there was a moment when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be writing about cancer.  It made me nervous.  I was already thinking about it too much, trying NOT to think about it so much.  I didn’t want it to occupy any more space in my brain than it already did.  Which was a lot.  (Pun and extended metaphor both intended and unavoidable.)

But I took a leap of faith and went for it.  And as it turned out, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made since I first got the cancer on/in the brain.  As it turns out, writing has not only helped me unpack my crowded brains of the too many things swirling around inside them; it’s also given me a venue through which I actually managed to cure myself.

Now don’t take that literally— I don’t mean to say that I’m permanently biologically cured of cancer.  Because I’m not, and probably never will be, unless by some sweet stroke of luck I die of a stroke 50 years from now and they  say “Well, it looks like he really was cured of that brain cancer after all!”

What I mean to say is that I literarily cured my cancer.  I wanted to see, to hear and imagine and feel what it would be like to be told that I was cured.  As in, the doctor closes a binder on his desk and says: “Go home.  There’s nothing else we can do for you here, because you’re fine.  You’ve got nothing at all to worry about any more.  Have a great weekend, and if I ever see you again it’ll be at that taco place you told me about in Redondo.  Their carnitas is fantastic.”

I wrote something like this (well, a slightly different version with less taco talk and a bit more suspense) about two weeks ago.  To try it on, to see how it felt.

It felt good.  So good, in fact, that the instant I pressed the “.” key, I started to weep like an old Italian lady.  I completely lost my shit, that’s how good it felt.  It felt so good that I was, in that instant, actually pretty much cured.

So when I went to the hospital for my MRI one early morning early this week, I felt an odd and totally new sense of anticipation swirling about me.  I love going to my hospital (all they ever do is things that make me not die), so I’m always excited to be there.  But this time I felt like I was going to a movie, or a show, that everyone was telling me would completely change my life.  Save my life, in fact.  I was excited.  It was weird.  Weirdly wonderful.

So while I sat in my underpants in the waiting room of the Mark Taper Imaging Center, I scribbled this in my notebook:

journal 1

journal 2

journal 3

journal 4

And it was.

And I am.

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So that’s what art can do.  Thank god I stupidly chose to be an English major.

Incidentally, I made sure to mention all of this to my doctor, since he’s been kindly following the progress both of my brain and what it’s working on.  I told him how he totally blew a huge dramatic opportunity by not telling me that either I was cured, or was gonna die in like 3 minutes.

He laughed.  So did I.

Next time I go in there with a few pages of scripted dialogue that we both have rehearsed in advance.

******************************
PS:  If you’ve got the cancer, and you’re worried about it, try writing about it.
Write anything.
And if you don’t know where to start, try just writing the word “cancer” with an exclamation point after it as many times as it takes to make you laugh out loud at least once.
Cancer!  Cancer!  Cancer!  (for me, it only took 3 times)

Then write whatever else comes to mind.
Because there will be something.
And it’ll probably be good for you to let it out.