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.

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.