Cancer is everywhere. In my entire life, I’ve never met anyone whose life hasn’t been impacted by it in one way or another. For my part, there are two of my immediate family members, a few grandparents, some cousins, a couple of close friends, and any number of random acquaintances, who have each experienced a surreal moment in a room with a medical professional who said the big word. Bring on the heartache. Bring on the fear and uncertainty. Bring on the loss of control. Sorry, you are no longer the pilot of your own life. Cancer’s driving now.
But as omnipresent as cancer is in our lives, it’s still an incredibly personal experience. Individual cancer stories are not universal; they belong solely to the ones who write them. Only they can know what it felt like to hear their diagnoses, endure the subsequent tests and office visits, and make their peace with the risks of treatment. Only they can attest to the relief tinged with fear when the cancer slips away into hiding. Only they know what it’s like to never quite trust your body again. Those of us who haven’t yet faced this moment of mortality can only imagine. We can never really know. And this is what makes memoirs like Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World (out in paper from Picador in February) so essential to the human experience. It’s also why, not having had cancer myself, I have always been a little afraid to write about it. Afraid to say the wrong thing. Afraid to inflict more pain.
I was in sixth grade the first time I realized cancer was even a thing. My family attended church that year, awkwardly trying to find religion though we’d never really looked for it before. There was a boy named Jacob in my youth group—dark, curly hair, dreamy blue eyes and the straightest, whitest smile. Dimples for days. He walked with this pair of shiny blue forearm crutches, which at the time didn’t seem weird to me, just another thing about him. I had always been a little different myself. Different seemed right. I spent more of those days than I’d like to admit just daydreaming about Jacob’s dimples or thinking up a joke I could tell him or something fascinating we could talk about. I wondered if he even knew my name. Despite all of that planning, we never quite had a first conversation. And then one Sunday he was just gone, and everyone was sad. I was stunned. Kids weren’t supposed to die. Something about leukemia, they said. Something about blood clots in his legs. I remember taking a bath that night and wondering if his ghost could see me. I imagined him holding my pruny wet hand.
We all have a cancer story. Hanging up in disbelief after a phone call. Crying in a locked car in the hospital parking lot because we can’t trust ourselves to walk into that room. Examining our bodies for signs of encroachment like stray lumps of abnormal cells. Quitting smoking. Eating more broccoli than anyone ever really wanted or avoiding it and feeding on guilt instead, because we feel a moral obligation to do everything we can to ward off this looming, stealthy intrusion. Cancer is simply a part of all of our lives, though none of us wants it there. It’s too visceral, too fathomable, too close. It obliterates the lives we thought we wanted, the job, the house, the car, the traveling, the family, the joy. It distills our glorious and varied human lives down to one primal need: survival. It takes things, like our feeling of relative safety, and never ever gives them back.
It’s awful, it’s horrible, we know it sucks. And the gifts that come from that fight for survival—the leaving behind of frivolous baggage, the peace found in a rare pain-free moment, the coming together of a community providing support—can never remotely make up for how crappy it is that anyone or anyone’s loved one will have to endure this kind of pain. But I’m glad for them anyway. I’m glad that writers like Eve Ensler have the guts left after punching cancer right in the face to do it again, but this time on the page. It’s completely selfish, my reason for reading cancer stories. I want to consume them, take them into my body and let them rest there awhile. I want to absorb the strength it took to go through that gauntlet and come out still kicking on the other side. I want to be the kind of person who would look cancer in the eye, unafraid, and take what comes. I want to know, should the big C ever come for me, that I’d be in good, good company. And maybe if I’m lucky, Jacob will hold my hand.
Cancer cells cover image: http://blacklemag.com/living/scientists-create-a-trap-for-cancer-cells/