I’m a Cancer Survivor but I won’t be a Life Survivor.

It seems odd for me to describe myself as a cancer survivor. Oh, I had cancer, alright. In 2002, very early in the year, I was diagnosed serendipitously with kidney cell cancer. I had gone to see my GP about acid reflux so he sent me to to the hospital to have an ultrasound to check it out. The ultrasound tech wasn’t looking for anything in particular is my guess, but she zeroed in on my left kidney and sure enough there was a lesion there that they strongly suspected was kidney cell cancer. The techs didn’t tell me that, of course. They don’t discuss the results of a scan with patients in my experience. My GP was the one to break the news to me. His office called me to tell me the doctor wanted to see me at 5:30 the following day. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in hindsight, that was an unusual thing for my GP to do. In any case, he broke it to me and said that the best chance of a full recovery for me was surgery as soon as possible. Then he sent me off to see the urologist who would perform the surgery. They didn’t perform a biopsy they said because of the fear of spreading the cancer which at that point was restricted to my left kidney. Fair enough.

So, after all the preliminary tests were done and I had seen the surgeon and the anesthesiologist my surgery was scheduled for the third week of February. Normally, of course, I would have been teaching at that time, but that wasn’t going to happen so the college arranged for subs on very short notice, one of whom was to die of cancer a few years later. The thing is that there are no obvious symptoms with kidney cell cancer. As far as I know, it doesn’t usually affect kidney function, so my kidneys didn’t show any signs of stress or disease. I felt fine. I did some work around the property. It so happened that we were just in the process of buying a new place in Cumberland, BC when I was diagnosed. There was a lot to do. We had an acre of property with the house and several outbuildings. It was a good thing that I wasn’t particularly debilitated. That was to come later.

Needless to say, a cancer diagnosis is traumatizing for everyone involved. I was concerned for my family as much, if not more, than for myself. Strangely, I was convinced that this cancer wouldn’t kill me so I was pretty upbeat about the whole thing. Why I felt this way I have no idea. It could be I was in denial. We humans are great at denial, even me.

Finally, I had my day in the operating room. I arrived at the hospital with Carolyn early in the morning with hardly anyone around. We said our goodbyes and I was taken to the pre-op area. They didn’t waste any time getting me ready and into the operating room. That I remember. My GP was in attendance and assisting, although I didn’t see him in the operating room at the time. Later, my GP told me that the surgeon had cut me in half laterally on my left thoracic area so that the kidney could be gently lifted out helping to keep the cancer contained. He said it was quite daunting. That’s what happened. Since then I’ve made do with one kidney. One of my former students was a nurse in the OR. We joked around until the anesthetic kicked in. Having a former student in OR isn’t unusual because many of my students were in the nursing program and were taking my sociology courses as electives. It happened again last year when Carolyn went in to have her appendix removed. My former students are everywhere!

I tell you all of this so you get a sense of what I mean when I say I’m a cancer survivor, but I find it hard to describe myself as such. I think of cancer survivors as people who have had to struggle for weeks, months or years on chemo and/or radiation, losing their hair and being in horrible pain the whole time. I have known many people who have succumbed to cancer, but I also know a number of people who have fought it, and fought it valiantly for long periods of time and survived. My cancer recovery was not at all long and drawn out. The surgery put an end to it. Done. Well, mostly done. My surgery was seventeen years ago and my left thoracic area has been a source of constant pain since then, aggravated often by the slightest movement. The pain in my side never lets me forget about the cancer that almost claimed my life. It gets pretty tiresome at times and saps my energy, but I carry on because what else is there to do? No, suicide is not an option.

So, I guess I’m a kind of cancer survivor, but I won’t be a life survivor. No one has ever been, nor will anyone ever be a life survivor. Nothing can ‘cure’ us of death. My surgery has allowed me to live longer and that’s fine, but I’m still in line for dying. And that’s fine. I don’t have any illusions about life and death. Life demands death. Life cannot happen without death. Denying that gets us nowhere. So, every day is one more day to enjoy and struggle over. When it’s done it will be done. That’s it. I know that some of you might think it odd that I say it, but if I had died on 2002, that would have been fine too. Carolyn and my family would have been sad and would have mourned my loss, but they would have gotten on with their lives. That’s what we do when people close to us die, we get on with our lives until our turn comes.

Beauty in Death

Alder leaves – Skeletonized by alder flea beetles

The photograph above is of skeletonized alder leaves caused by alder leaf beetle larvae. The adults chew holes in the leaves while the larvae leave the ‘skeleton’ of the leaf intact but strip it of the ‘meat’ of the leaf.

We have several alders on our property and they all look terrible with leaves dropping or dead but still on the tree. From what we’ve read on the internet the trees generally survive an alder flea beetle infestation, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Of course alders lose their leaves in the fall, but ordinarily, the leaves drop off in a heavy wind and are generally intact yet brown. The skeletonization of alder leaves is the product of the little black alder leaf beetle larvae. The effects of the two processes are entirely different and are obvious upon inspection.

But enough technical stuff. The point of this post is that I find these skeletonized alder leaves quite beautiful. I love the intricacy of the connections of the veins. I love their strength. I haven’t used these particular leaves as a drawing subject, but I have drawn skeletonized leaves.

I can’t remember just when I drew these skeletonized leaves, which are not alders, but it was a few years ago certainly.

It’s difficult to see death in these leaves because we hardly see life in trees at the best of times. Forest companies don’t deal in trees, don’t you know, they deal in ‘fibre.’ When we see a load of logs on a logging truck going down the highway we don’t think of death (if we think of anything at all) related to the truck and its load. I have no real evidence to write this, but I do understand the culture and the language that denies death and this has that culture and language all over it.

That said, there is death in these leaves. They are dead or at least fully within the process of disintegrating and becoming compost for future plant growth. Their ‘meat’ is gone and all that remains is their ‘skeletons’. I find beauty in skeletons. I’m not sure why. We have lots of bones around here, bits and pieces from various deceased animals including a mouse, a tiny bird, raccoons and deer. Skeletons, for some reason, at least clean and bleached ones, have a simplicity and elegance that is always hidden in life. They require death to release them from their ‘meaty’ cover, to bring them to our attention, and to give them life. Maybe that’s why I find them so attractive.

I watched our dog die the other day.

Actually I’ve watched all of our dogs die except two. The only two we didn’t watch die were Little One and Chitka. Little One because she was no longer in our care. It was a long time ago and we had to give her up because where we were moving to wouldn’t have her. With Chitka, neither Carolyn nor I had could go in when he was euthanized. Too painful. All the others, Cedric, Oren, Max and recently, Wilco, all died at the hands of a vet with us present. They were all old and ready to go but that never makes it any easier. None of them did us the favour or dying in their sleep at home.

On August 3rd of this year, we took Wilco to the vet for one last time but not before we took him down to the beach in Royston and for a little drive around town. I still think about him every day, remembering his goofiness. He loved the Royston beach and used to chase his ball there for as long as we’d throw it for him. He  and his ball were inseparable for the first seven years we had him.

 

After that, he lost interest, we suspect because he was in a lot of pain and it just wasn’t fun anymore. He even stopped chasing cats and rabbits about 18 months ago.

He was probably sixteen years old and couldn’t walk anymore. I had to carry him into the car and lift him out. The vet staff took him into the clinic. Our vet, Carol Champion checked him out and agreed with our decision to have him put down. A few minutes later, as he lay in his usual position on the floor she gave him a sedative. When she was certain he was sedated she injected him with what I think was pentobarbital. It took less than a minute and I noticed he wasn’t breathing anymore. I stroked his back a few times and gave him a pat on the head but he was gone. Carolyn and I were very upset but the staff at the clinic was super and so supportive. I find it very hard not to cry on these occasions so I just let it happen. I miss him a lot.

Having Wilco with us for 10 years or so, watching him with his ball, stalking the fish in the aquarium and chasing bears on the logging roads and on camping trips makes it hard to let him go. He was family.

I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. If I’m in a lot of pain and immobile and as old as Wilco (relatively speaking) I’d be quite happy to die like he did, surrounded by caring people not willing to watch him suffer anymore.

After he was euthanized, he was taken to a pet crematorium somewhere north of Courtenay located on a working farm where he joined a number of other pets to be cremated together and have their ashes spread out on the fields.

Not all animals have the idyllic life Wilco lived, nor the peaceful, loving death. Of course every living thing is on a death trajectory. That’s no surprise. Essentially, living and dying are the same process. That’s one of the main reason we are so conflicted as a species around life and death. We fear life because we know it will bring us death. Our culture, our politics, our everything are aimed at eliminating threats, imagined or real,  to our ‘lives’. We insist that our deaths must be meaningful or we deny death altogether.

I’ll get into a long diatribe into the essence of life and death later, in another series of blog posts although you’ll find the archives in this blog full of references to death denial. Suffice it to say for now that life must consume life. Up to this time, life on this planet has been the mutual devouring of species. Can that change? Should we be more ‘humane’ in how we raise and kill other species for our own consumption? Does it matter how long a calf lives before it’s slaughtered for us? Does it matter how much pain and suffering we inflict on other species in the name of scientific research or simply to grace our dinner plates? Is life really just suffering? For now, I’ll just leave you with these questions. I may offer up answers, at least tentative ones, to these questions in future posts. Stay tuned.

From the Times Literary Supplement

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/grave-expectations-death/

Until death do us part. This is a great review of a subject most of us dread. The fear of death and dying and the obsessions that fear engenders often keep us from living life to the fullest. Are we programmed to fear death? Is it in our genes? It is a huge part of our culture.  Fully institutionalized death denial permeates deeply into our everyday lives whether we are religiously inclined or not.

Read on.

The peril of reading several books simultaneously and thinking about death.

I often read several books simultaneously and I’m doing just that now. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them all sorted out, especially if they’re treating the same subject matter. That’s especially true right now in terms of my interest in misogyny. Books on the same theme tend to overlap a lot. Books on misogyny are no exception. Same for books on our denial of death although it does depend on whether a book is psychological, philosophical, sociological, historical, or anthropological in its orientation. I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014, I think). It’s psychological in a sense while being a quasi-ethnography of hospitals and nursing homes. I give you a bit of a review of this book later in this post but I can tell you right now that it’s all a bit depressing. But, don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It seems the truth is often depressing. Read it anyway and enjoy your depression. At least you’re not dead yet. Ahem.

I usually have at least one art book on the go, but they are more of an ongoing thing rather than a one-off read. Right now I have The Art of Drawing next to my chair. It’s by Richard Kenin (1974, Paddington Press). It soothes my sometimes inexplicably jangled nerves as I leaf through the pages looking at images drawn by the masters of the Renaissance. Well, I’ve been a stress case my whole life as far as I can make out so I need all the help I can get. Renaissance drawings have a calming effect on me. So, I look at them.

The other books I now have on the go are not designed to soothe my nerves. I don’t know why I read some of the books I do, because they can sometimes leave me drained and mentally exhausted, but I read them anyway. It has occurred to me that I may have some masochistic tendencies. Don’t tell my doctor. For fun, I’m reading Iain M. Banks’ book Surface Detail. This is my third Banks novel and although he sets his complex and multilayered stories on a galactic scale, it’s still all about our earthly human level frailties, our fears of life and death and our often undeniable utter stupidity. Banks is a great read but his stories do tend to overlap thematically with my other, non-fictional reads. So, I don’t always get a reprieve from my depression by reading him, but he is entertaining and that’s a bonus.

I read a lot of books about mortality and lately quite a few on misogyny. It turns out the two themes are intrinsically and historically intertwined and interdependent. It sometimes amazes me that after most of my adult life, going on 50 years now, reading and thinking about mortality that I can still get excited about reading something new and different yet on the same topic. It’s too bad I can’t get equally as excited about other things but I am getting on, you understand. If you haven’t read them yet, you may want to read my last few posts on misogyny and its relationship with our immortality striving.

For a long time, I’ve had a passing notion that misogyny and our denial of death were related, but I had no idea how closely related until I read Misogyny by Jack Holland. Now, on misogyny, I’m reading From Eve To Dawn by Marilyn French. It’s a study on the history of women from a feminist perspective first published in Canada in 2002. I wrote about this book in a previous post. This reading follows others by Simone de Beauvoir and Germain Greer to name just two. Busy, busy, I am. I must admit that I’m getting a bit saturated with this topic, but it does get at the heart of what human history has been all about so I carry on reading about it.

I have read a lot of books on how we, as humans, have devised multitudinous means of trying to deny our mortality. The latest book in my quiver on mortality is by Atul Gawande. I told you in my opening paragraph that I would give you a bit of a review of his book and here it is. Gawande’s book is close to home because I’m feeling my age, and time passes so quickly that I can see myself in his book at a very personal and immediate level. One day soon, I will die. That’s a given. Tomorrow is promised to no one. How my demise plays out is up in the air at the moment but I would like a good death if you can relate to that. I have no expectation of imminent death, but at 71, my days are numbered. That’s a fact.

Gawande is a surgeon. His book is personal in the sense that he follows his father’s (he was also a surgeon) physical decline late in his life, especially after his father learns that he has a massive tumour that has invaded his upper spine and neck causing him no end of pain. Gawande is a fixer. Like most medical doctors he is programmed to fix things that go wrong with us. He’s good at that. What he understands, however, is  that there are things that go wrong with us that can’t be fixed, like death. He writes that modern medicine and the whole ‘health’ system is geared to fixing things that go wrong with our bodies. Inevitably, of course, all the fixing is in vain and we die. He argues that in large measure medicine does not understand chronic pain and illness, cannot fix it, and is completely flummoxed by death. It’s the ultimate failure for modern doctors. Moreover, modern medicine can increase pain and suffering at the time of death by pushing treatments that falsely promise more than they can deliver. This is especially true with patients who are terminally ill with cancer, no matter at what age.

Gawande also goes after how we are treated in our last months, weeks and days of life particularly if we live in a nursing home. He has a special hate on for nursing homes that warehouse the ill and aged and he praises those that allow ‘inmates’ a certain amount of freedom in determining how they will live, ever with their disabilities. He argues that safety and efficiency are highly overrated as nursing home goals. He presents case studies of nursing homes that respect the dignity of their residents.

Gawande tells a good story while he argues that our obsession with immortality is killing us and denying us respectful deaths. The case studies he presents of young and old people struggling with terminal illness as they interact with their doctors who try to fix them are heart wrenching. I’m not looking forward to this type of scenario myself, you can be assured of that. There will be a big fat Do Not Resuscitate sign around my neck when my time comes. His work remind me of Kübler-Ross’s epic study of The Five Stages of Grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Her book is much more theoretical than Gawande’s, but it had a huge impact when it first came out because people were shocked that someone would write so openly about dying.

Maybe reading several books at a time is my way of denying death. Then again, maybe not. I concluded long ago that life is largely meaningless in the grand scheme of things but while I live I have to do something. I can’t just stand around picking my nose. So, I might just as well read several books at once while I wait for the final call. It won’t matter shite when I’m gone anyway.

Oh, and by the way, I’m about to start another book. It’s by Yuval Noah Harari and is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Wish me luck.

Misogyny: What the Hell? Okay, Let’s Do This.

So, I’ve been putting off writing this post. The reason is that I’ve been reading, reading, and reading some more. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on misogyny and countless more scholarly articles, never mind the (probably) millions of newspaper, magazine, websites, blogs, and other sources I can’t think of right now, that try to understand misogyny or point out it’s catastrophic consequences especially for women, but also for all of us. And there are original sources to be evaluated including religious texts, philosophical works, and ethnographies. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature in reading and teaching a course on love and sex, but there are themes that re-occur again and again so it’s not necessary to read every piece of writing on the topic. What I have read is depressing enough.

I want to say that I have no intention of offending anyone by writing these words today, but some people will inevitably take exception. That I cannot control. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and the more contemporary Charles Darwin (although I’m not in the same category of eminence as they are), I must write what I see as the truth based on decades of study and reflection. That said, let’s do this.

As I wrote in my last post, misogyny started when the animal became the human. Of course, we’ve always been animals, subject to all the vagaries and uncertainties that that entails including the challenges associated with survival, including getting enough to eat and drink, protecting ourselves from threats (floods, droughts, volcanoes, rock slides, predators etc.,) as well as replenishing the species by making babies. However, when we evolved sufficiently to become self-aware, which took millions of years, we were able, with our now bigger brains, to try to deny that we were ever animals in the first place. Or rather, we didn’t specifically deny our animality, we just tamed it by making it subject to control by our ‘self’.

Language has long fascinated me and there is plenty of evidence in our languages of the attempted denial or taming of our animality. If I say to you: “My body is really sore from that workout yesterday,” to what does the ‘my’  in that sentence refer? What is it that can claim ownership of the body? This linguistic turn had profound impacts on humanity long before English evolved. Virtually everywhere I look in the anthropological ethnographic literature, we’ve determined that ‘we’ are in fact not just our bodies, but ‘we’ are much more than that. We’ve managed to convince ourselves via our dreams (awake and asleep), our growing imaginations and probably through trances brought on by drugs, dancing or fasting) that we must be a very special animal indeed. This process led Ernest Becker to argue that it’s our ingenuity and not our animality that “has given [our] fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.” (EFE, p.5) As we developed selfhood and  our brains grew bigger and more capable, we convinced ourselves through ritual that we were able to control heaven and earth. We invented rituals and projects like the zodiac to convince ourselves that the heavens were in constant intimate relations with us and we read chicken entrails and runes to determine how we might control natural forces that threatened us. We created culture to oppose nature, as Becker argues, and our cultures are more or less elaborate and sophisticated projects to deny our animality and, consequently, our death.

We always knew that animals died and we were not oblivious to the fact that we all eventually meet the same fate. What to do? Oh, what to do? Well, the ‘forces of nature’ were always overwhelming and difficult to handle but we determined that if we pursued the right rituals, we could affect the course of our lives and of nature. We began to bargain with the forces of nature. “You back off and give us good crops and we’ll sacrifice a bunch of sheep to you. Sound fair?” But the forces of nature (gods) were never satisfied and needed constant reassurance that we would feed them. Kingship developed as a way of having a god present at all times to take our gifts and keep us safe. We, however, the weak, vulnerable species that we are also needed constant reminders that we mattered and that the gods were paying attention and were on our side. So, we split our societies into ‘moieties’ or (literally) halves so that we might have someone to compete against to show the gods how worthy we were. That process is still extant in modern society. We tirelessly set up competitions to prove our worth, our value and we do it most frequently for the glory of our God (gods) or, now, our secular god, our country, that institution that ensures us survival beyond our animal lives. Religion has always promised us eternal life. Why else would it exist? Thousands of religions over the course of history have given people thousands of ways of gaining eternal life. Problem is, in a competitive world, if my way to eternal life promised by my religion is the right way, your’s cannot be. Sorry about that.

Now comes the part where the most momentous invention ever to come from the human species was wrought. That’s the notion that if our bodies are mortal, then the only thing we can do is deny them their due. Because we were now connected to the forces of nature we could pretend that we had an inside track on immortality. Gods were immaterial and immortal, we could be too. If we performed the rituals just the right way, we could ensure our eternal survival. Our rituals became increasingly aimed at chastising the flesh, piling corpses upon corpses to assuage the gods. We needed to put emphasis on our selves, our souls, that immaterial aspect of ourselves that would not die if we performed the proper rituals at the proper time. Our bodies became our enemies. The body became associated with death, the spirit with life. Norman O. Brown states that in fact, the earth is the devil’s domain. Disease and death became the twin pillars of evil for us. Life on this earth was transitory, just a preparation for the immortality we could achieve upon our corporal death if we lived right, did the right things. Our denial of death led to our denial of our bodies and our lives. So, in order to live eternally, we were prepared not to live fully in our animality.

So, why do we associate faeces with dirt? Why must we avoid getting dirty? “We read that the men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to seal up the anus and not to need to defecate…The body cannot be allowed to have the ascendency over him.” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 32) The Chagga men’s denial is our denial. In another post, I address this fact more fully, but for now, what of women?

Well, women were never the primary class of people who presided over ritual. They were much too busy having babies and being domestic. The first class divide then is between men and women, a mostly natural divide to start with, but with time, the most important class divide was between most men and the priestly class. Women need not apply. Not then, not now. (Yes, you can contest this point if you want.)

In fact, for men, their bodies are traitors to them because of their animal nature, their death instinct. When men and the priestly class came to dominate human societies, women were increasingly seen as the epitome of animality. Men ‘othered’ women for their sexuality, their attractiveness to men, for dragging men into a depraved and animal world. Sex became dirty unless it was sanctioned by the priestly class using the proper rituals. Sexual attraction had to be denied at all costs so that it couldn’t infect men’s spirits, their souls. Problem is, of course, we are a species that reproduces sexually so there was a need for a massive investment in ritual to ‘cleanse’ women especially during menstruation and in the regulation of the female being, of the female world which by it’s very nature condemned men to death. Sins of the flesh are a great way to eventually find yourself in hell. (Of course, things are changing and I’ll deal with that too in another post.) Dante’s hell isn’t as present as it used to be in Abrahamic consciousness but we have other ‘hells’ to replace it.

Enough for today. I will follow this set of blog posts with a list of the materials I used in researching this topic, at least the most important ones.

Without getting into too many specifics, my next post is about how women have been treated throughout history and labelled unclean and a threat to men’s ascension to eternal life. For that we need to visit the Old Testament, especially Leviticus, but other sources as well, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and others partly through Jack Holland’s work, but also through many others including Ernest Becker, Norman O. Brown, Otto Rank, Umberto Eco, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Carol F. Karlsen. Simone de Beauvoir also figures prominently here.