A couple months ago, I was at the pool wearing this halter-necked, old-timey, 1940s-style bathing suit. I was sitting on the steps in the water, just enjoying the evening, late-summerishly, a little melancholy but also warily hopeful, when my husband swam up and was like, “Uh, you might want to adjust your suit.” And I looked down and there was the Frankenlump, which is my unreconstructed breast, just sticking out of the halter part of my suit. (Though there is a “tissue expander” in place, I’ve been undergoing cancer treatment pretty much solidly for two years and haven’t had a chance to finish breast reconstruction. So the Frankenlump is just as you might imagine: a lump, amorphous, with a scar across the top.) I didn’t even feel anything amiss, like you might if your boob slipped out of your suit, because that whole area of my body, including my left armpit and the area beneath it, is numb and probably always will be. I just sighed and pulled the halter piece back into position.
Could I be in one of those ads in the Times Sunday magazine where people hold up snarky little notes to cancer?
In case you haven’t seen the Times magazine lately, I’ll describe a recent back-of-the-book ad: a full page image featuring two cavalier-lookin’ dudes with matching “Fred’s Team” T-shirts. One guy has a stethoscope draped around his neck so we know he’s a physician: awesome! And he’s holding a sign that says “Cancer, I always knew my brother would outrun you. Rich Bakst, MD.”
These ads drive me insane. First of all, cancer doesn’t give a shit about your stupid attitude. It’s a disease. Second, I always wonder if cancer takes these people down in a few years if their children or spouses or parents will feel even worse than usual. Third, why tempt fate? I don’t know about these jokers, but no one knows for sure if I have cancer or not. No one said “You’re cured!” and gave me a high-five. Anyone who does do that is, frankly, lying.
And yet the magazine is full of hospitals advertising their services and suggesting that if you choose their facility, you’re going to get to live to walk on the beach with your kid or have a baby to begin with or star in a Broadway show, no problem. I hate this. It’s not because I don’t think it matters where you seek your care. On the contrary: it matters a lot. Standards of care vary vastly. My advice to anyone facing cancer is to go to the absolute best hospital there is. Pull strings if you have to, travel if you have to; make every effort to see top experts. A hospital that might be OK for having a baby in or for taking out your appendix just might kill you, the cancer patient, prematurely, through sheer ineptitude.
There’s much about “cancer” that is unknown. In fact, “cancer” isn’t just one disease but an umbrella term. Breast cancer itself is a variety of diseases. The thing that makes most people uncomfortable is that I don’t have any of the answers that they want to hear like “I’m fine!” “I’m cured!” “I kicked cancer’s ass!”
So I hate those ads. I hate them to the point (and there are other reasons, Gray Lady) of giving up on the Sunday New York Times, which is like handing in the badge and gun of my demographic. In fact, I’ve already let my subscriptions to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books lapse, too. What’s next? Shit, I even sold my juicer at a yard sale and I’m thinking of just packing up all my knitting stuff and giving it to someone who wants it. Who knows what’s in store for me? Stuff is getting crazy.
Which is, I think, the theme of The Big C, a show I learned about while innocently reading People (Chelsea! Wedding! Squeal!) on the New Jersey Turnpike as we drove home from our summer vacation. The full-page back-of-the-book ad featured Laura Linney in the top part of an hourglass, in a come-hither pose, high heels kicked up behind her, lookin’ all smug and sexy with a beach ball. The sand is, of course, running into the bottom of the glass. Because she has cancer, get it? Time is running out! But the look on her face says “Oh my God, you guys, the cancer? Is totally scary? But now that I might die sooner rather than later? I am having a total blast! It’s weirdly kinda fun (and sexy!)”
I understand that disease can be a great opportunity for personal growth and even a weird sort of liberation. But to suggest that it’s actually fun? And sexy? And trying to lure viewers with the great “death of the sexy blonde” motif (which has already been thoroughly explored in millions of hours of movie and TV footage, as well as on the cover of Hustler magazine’s infamous “meat grinder” issue)? I’m embarrassed as well as angry. Cancer is bad enough without feeling exploited on top of it. Showtime, you’re no worse than people who cluster along roadsides and sell food and drink to refugees fleeing genocidal regimes on foot. “Step right up and witness the dying process of this sexy blonde! She’s going to “grab life by the balls”! What we are suggesting is that she might get a little promiscuous before she dies, in her prime, thus leaving behind a perfectly sexy corpse, which we know, you, America, love!
My final issue of the New Yorker reminds me that that magazine has a lot to learn about cancer, too. “Letting Go,” a recent piece by Atul Gawande is a generally excellent article about hospice care, but one thing sticks in my craw. Gawande describes a heartbreaking diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in a woman 39 weeks pregnant.
“Monopoli was thirty-four. She had never smoked, or lived with anyone who had. She exercised. She ate well. The diagnosis was bewildering.”
Is it really “bewildering,” Dr. Gawande? Is it? Because I’ve met plenty of young cancer patients who have “done nothing” to invite their cells to start mutating. Can we just admit it? We’re in the midst of an epidemic and no one really knows what’s happening, but I suspect it has something to do with environmental toxins, which probably can never be proven. Can we all just stop pretending that cancer is something unusual? And something that can be cured? A lot of people want me to tell them that I’m fine. That I’m cured. “You’re fine, right?” they say, showing the worry lines on their faces, trying to feed me words I won’t say. Because they want to know that they’re going to be OK when they get cancer. Because they don’t want to hear me say, “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen once your cells start mutating.”
Besides, most of life isn’t all that “fun” or “sexy” anyway, so why would it be more so once you get sick? Is it the full-body depiliation? Or having other people cut you open and remove cancer-filled organs and their close friends? Is it getting jabbed with needles and filled with toxic chemicals time and time again? Is it repeatedly being alone in rooms where you get spoken to through a PA system by people who are behind glass and wearing lead suits while you are irradiated wearing only your skin? Is it throwing up? Not sleeping? Losing your memory?
I suppose I don’t need to watch The Big C, anyhow. As I sat in my sexy bathing suit enjoying late summer despite the wayward Frankenlump, I was already there.
Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.