Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cancer: the last obscenity

My third Good Letters post for the Image Journal is up this morning. It is a reflection on living with terminal cancer, as I have for the past six-and-a-half years. The theme of the post is also the theme of my book in progress, Life on Planet Cancer. My oncologist tells me that most patients collapse upon being being diagnosed, sinking into resignation and despair, but while I have discovered small goodness in cancer, I have learned to live with it—have learned that you can still have a life under its shadow.

Cancer redefines you forever; to live in denial, to pretend that you do not have the disease, is self-denial. You reject what you have become in favor of some fantasy image of yourself. If you were to do this with any of your other limitations, your height, your intelligence, your capacity for self-exertion, you would recognize it for the neurotic lie that it is. About cancer, though, our culture is forgiving: you are permitted the escape from responsibility you would not otherwise be permitted. And why? Because our culture no more wants to acknowledge the reality of cancer than those with the illness. Cancer is, perhaps, the last obscenity.

Anything, please, but the reality of cancer! The culture celebrates “survivors” who have triumphed over it, praises the dead for having “fought” it, but those who are living with the illness are invisible, hidden away. The culture will stoop to speaking the name of cancer, that is, only when it is past—not when it is a present reality for anyone.

When the baseball Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn died on Monday from salivary gland cancer, he was celebrated for his achievements on the field and off—rightly so—but his five-year experience of living with cancer was reduced to a “battle” and nothing more. How the disease affected his thinking, his coaching at San Diego State University, his self-image, his personal relationships, his faith—none of this was mentioned, let alone explored. He became a hero only in death, because his life while diseased is no one’s business, just as a person’s sex life used to be.