People assume cancer is a bad thing.
People presume just because I have a rare, incurable, quite possibly terminal lymphoma that will require searing treatment and scores of cash; a disease that will take a harrowing emotional toll on me and mine while- best case scenario- reducing me to a gaunt, hairless, infertile, (‘probably not’) impotent shadow of my former healthy, virile self, that it’s all downside.
But you know what they say about making an ass out of you and mption. Fools.
As it turns out, cancer is not without its uses.
Cancer’s like having an ace in the hole you can play whenever it suits you without ever having to leave the card on the table.
For example, driving to my oncologist’s office the morning before my chemo began my wife and I found ourselves running late.
‘Just speed.’ I said calmly from the passenger seat ‘You’ll make up the time.’
‘On this road?’ she replied like I had prophylactic chemo brain, ‘There are speed traps everywhere. We’ll get pulled over for sure.’
‘Maybe,’ I accepted, ‘but then all you have to say is ‘I’m sorry, Officer, we’re late for my husband’s chemotherapy appointment. He has (daub the eye)…cancer.’ Even the most tight-sphinctered cop wouldn’t give you a ticket.’
The cancer-house-always-wins odds washed over her. She glanced at me, her eyes glinting like Steve McQueen’s to Ali MacGraw in The Getaway.
‘Punch it, baby’ I said.
When life hands you a belly full of tumorous lemons, make lemonade.
The week I spent at home post-surgery, pre-chemo one late afternoon a pimpled idealist with a $5 t-shirt and a plastic lanyard came knocking at my front door, canvassing for some urgent political cause. Having pimped out my principles for such work myself back in college, I’m normally an easy mark for a sympathetic signature and a harmless chunk of change.
This time, though, I didn’t even have to resort to my typical ‘I was just making dinner’ excusing salvo.
No. Channeling my genuine and recent sense of bewilderment, I muttered: ‘I’m sorry…I just found out… I have cancer…’
When I said it- and, truthfully, I don’t even know why I said it (‘I’m an asshole’ might be one obvious answer)- I wasn’t expecting it to slink me free of her utopian overtures.
But sure enough, just like that, she was forcibly removing her clipboard from my hands as though its germs might infect neutropenic me. Grabbing her ballpoint pen and bold-faced brochure back from me, she affected a preschool teacher’s countenance and said:
‘You don’t need to worry about this right now, and you CERTAINLY don’t need to be giving away money.’
For a second, I thought she was going to hug me.
She looked like she was going to cry and, more importantly, I did not look $25 lighter for it.
See, who said cancer is a bad thing?
My second day of chemo I sat reading in bed, trying to ignore the wave of nausea creeping up my throat, when my cellphone interrupted the beeps and buzzing from my IV pole.
It was someone from the Honda dealership trying to persuade me with the slick logic of a payday loan to SAVE MONEY by trading in my nearly paid for car with a new completely unpaid for one. I’d met this salesperson several times before and, each time, he left me feeling like I needed a shower. If I’d been splurting blood from the jugular such that it was spraying Cormac McCarthy-style all over the ceiling, I would’ve bet a down payment that he’d pressure me into an extended warranty before applying pressure to my sputtering wound.
I guess I was wrong.
‘I’m sorry’ I said a few seconds into his cellphone schtick, ‘I’m actually in the hospital right now with cancer.’
The conversation was over as quickly as it had begun.
And, bonus, he sent me a card.
Cancer’s not all downside.
The C Word got me out of the change fees with Porter Airlines for a trip I had planned to take with my wife this spring but now cannot take ‘…because…(deep melancholy sigh) I have…cancer.’
‘Merci,’ I said to the customer service lady in Quebec City.
And yesterday when I called the Billing Department for my son’s viola, which we apparently rent from Mercedes Benz, I apologized for the missed payment.
‘It just slipped my mind’ I explained cloudily ‘after I started chemotherapy…which I’m taking…because…I have…cancer.’
See, cancer’s not all bad.
To those with the (hairless) balls to grab the tumor by the reins, cancer’s like the cellular equivalent of that long, steadicam tracking shot in Goodfellas.
Sure, like the mob, cancer puts your life at risk but at least it makes you a made guy, opening doors with barely 4 syllables’ worth of effort. And, even better, it closes down unwanted conversations faster than saying ‘I’m a pastor’ or ‘Would you mind if I talked to you about Jesus?’
Cancer’s not all bad.
Just last night, having visited me in the oncology unit, my wife leaned over my hospital bed to kiss me goodbye.
She put her hand on my cheek, tender and soft, and I put mine on her waist. Her hand remained there on my cheek, as true and chaste as a Jane Austen heroine.
Meanwhile, mine- left and right- wandered gently upward, just enough to cop a feel of her…ahem.
‘How many times in 20 years have I told you not to do that?!’ she chastised me.
Me, adopting a confused look, like I was trying to do the sum of all those times previous in my head:
‘But honey…I have cancer.’
It almost worked.
Cancer’s not all weeping and gnashing of IV ports.
Today I learned they’re going to release me in a couple of days with a prescription for a medication for vaginal yeast infections and herpes. Cancer may have riddled my body with tumors too many to count, but it’s also handed me humor gold like herpes and vagina pills.
It’s two days away, but I’ve got my parting shot to Joyce, my favorite nurse:
No wonder I was sleeping so fitfully! What were you nurses doing with me/to me while I was unconscious?!’
Already I can see her dark Kenyan skin blushing.
Cancer, as bad as it is, has its benefits.
I know it sounds crass, but it’s true: being able to say ‘I have cancer’ has its uses.
People think faith is like that.
Especially when the shit hits the biopsy.
Even unbelievers assume that faith is useful for calming your nerves, helping you to cope with the fears and anxieties that come when the CAT scan shows objectively that the Grim Reaper’s taking long, hard sniff all over you.
Just yesterday my Easternly-bent Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the hospital, presented ‘Buddhist mediation techniques’ (just saying ‘prayer’ would’ve somehow sounded too superstitious I suppose) to this priest as a potentially positive ‘healing tool.’
And tools, we all know, are designed to be nothing if not useful.
People presume that faith is useful too in pondering the big, COSMIC questions that accompany terminal diagnoses. Faith is useful, so the canard goes, in justifying the goodness/presence/reality/reliability of God’s ways when the world appears otherwise cold to ambivalent. Faith is useful in defending God’s Benevolence amidst the malevolence wracking your life.
Faith, in other words, is useful not just for alleviating anxiety; it’s useful for supplying answers to mysteries too dark to leave without rebuttal.
Maybe that’s the way faith works for some people; in fact, I’m absolutely certain that’s how faith works for many people.
But not me.
For me, faith isn’t like that.
Faith doesn’t provide a shot of optimism or a push of positive-thinking, for faith in the Cross and Resurrection isn’t optimism; it’s against-all-odds, in-the-face-of-all-just-merit hope.
Faith isn’t like all the steroid chasers to my chemo-poisons, convincing me I ‘can kick cancer’s ass’ because I’ve the Big Guy in my corner for the bout of my life.
Faith is not useful.
Cancer may have its practical benefits, but I’m not so sure faith does- at least, not in the way we typically imagine benefits.
My faith has NOT alleviated my anxieties. It hasn’t helped me sleep easier at night and it sure as Hell has not silenced the abacus in the back of my brain always- always, doing the math and wondering if the odds will ever be in my favor.
And my faith doesn’t provide any easy answers or assurances. It’s certainly not a coping mechanism.
What I mean is-
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, it’s staggering, assumes that a rare, aggressive cancer diagnosis will beget the ‘Why me, God?’ question a la Job, which, by the way, in four short weeks I’ve realized is a terrifically craptastic book of the bible.
Cancer doesn’t make you ask Job’s question any more than faith arms you with his answers.
What cancer does- it thrusts you into a community of people you didn’t know existed, people who are hurting every bit as if not more than you.
For example, there’s a girl on my oncology unit. She’s 23 and a 2 week olds’s mother. She learned she has cancer- has it bad- during her delivery. I’ve listened to her cry every night when they come to bring me my night meds.
The nurse I spoke to at my hematologist’s office, just before starting chemo, she said I was one of 30 people she was scheduled to see that day alone. People of all shapes and sizes and situations.
Cancer doesn’t make you wonder ‘Why me, God?’ Only a dick would get caught up with that kind of question.
No, cancer throws in you the scrum and makes you ask ‘Why them, God?’
Why us, God?
Why this world? Which is the only possible world if the world is indeed the perfection expression of God’s infinite Goodness.
Why this world where a lion fulfilling its lioness leads to the lamb being slaughtered and where a few efficient tumorous cells fulfilling their design leads to cancer?
You see, that’s the problem with the Book of Job. The cast is too small, the point of view too limited. Job never so much as goes to the doctor’s office.
Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask ‘Why me, God?’
Cancer leads you to wonder why God can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows.
So faith isn’t ‘useful’ for me.
For me, faith is more like that story in Mark 8 where Jesus needs a do-over before healing a blind man. After Jesus’ try, the man says ‘I see people…but they look like trees walking.’
Faith is like that for me; it’s to have been touched by Christ only to have the world appear more bewildering than when you were blind (and happily so, it turns out).
Like that story, at least for me, faith gets you wondering why God doesn’t seem to have gotten everything right the first go round. I’m sure it works that way for plenty of cognitively dissonant people out there, but for me faith is not ‘useful’ amidst my suffering. Faith amidst my suffering instead puts me in mind of others’ suffering. Faith reminds me that Christ’s suffering isn’t isolated or even unique but somehow summarized in it and encompassed by it is the suffering of all those others who were crucified on the same day as him.
Faith isn’t useful; it compels even now, somehow, to be useful to others in their suffering.
Faith doesn’t alleviate my anxieties- not one iota- but it does bring me up close to the anxieties of others where, maybe, someday, I can prove useful.
Faith isn’t useful, especially not in the sense my Licensed Clinical Social Worker encouraged.
Christian faith, and by that I mean cross-shaped faith, doesn’t cultivate a positive, productive attitude.
Christian faith produces hatred.
It provokes perfect hatred towards the meaningless of all suffering, the absolute needlessness of sin and the sheer unnatural emptiness of Death, which the first Christian evangel outs as our ‘last enemy.’
So while cancer has proved useful in giving me a lifetime of jokes about my vagina, faith doesn’t work for me in a similarly productive fashion. What faith gives me is more like a posture, knowing that in the suffering and dying of the faces I see in the oncologist’s office and here on Unit 21 I do NOT see the face of God. I see instead God’s Enemy against which my faith has enlisted my meager help.
That’s not exactly ‘useful’ in the way cancer’s useful for a good dirty beaver joke. But it is, I suppose, the Gospel.