A couple of years ago, a man I knew slightly and who’d heard of my bouts with cancer asked me, “What kind of cancer would you prefer to have?”
I answered, “Ovarian.”
It took a couple of seconds for it to register. I’m male. I don’t have ovaries.
He gave me a sickly grin, shrugged and walked away. It’s one of my favorite cancer stories.
I recently picked up Our Short History, a new novel by Laura Grodstein. The book deals with a woman’s reaction to learning she has ovarian cancer which will soon kill her. I seldom look at cancer books. There are too many of them, and I remember thinking that in the near future, we’ll have a cancer book festival on the Mall.
At any rate, I read the glowing reviews and was taken by the honesty of Grodstein’s prose. I once spent a few months putting together about 200 pages of a novel I thought I would title The Cancer Club, just so there would be no confusion about the subject matter.
Friends in a writers’ group who critiqued chapters of the draft universally hated it, and told me in no uncertain terms this was a distasteful subject they really wouldn’t want to read about. Even the title displeased them. One person, whose mother had succumbed to lung cancer, was deeply offended by a character in the book who insisted on smoking even after a diagnosis.
The book wasn’t bad, it really wasn’t.
Early on I had attended a few cancer support meetings near the National Institute of Health. I have a long history with support groups. I decided these particular get-togethers weren’t for me, but there were some interesting folks there, including an elderly Vietnamese woman who indeed did have lung cancer, did continue to smoke, and did anger the rest of the group. Like many Saigonese raised in the 60s, she spoke French, and she was delighted to meet someone to whom she could talk. She had been in the group longer than anyone else, including the counselor/moderator, and derived a strange joy from being old, cancerous, and bucking the odds daily with unfiltered Camels.
All these meandering thoughts came about because in a couple of days I’ll begin another course of chemo, this one preventative. The tests done last week showed no apparent new cancerous growths, but the doctor thought a spot or two looked suspicious. When he suggested another round of BCG, I winced. He shrugged and said, “We shouldn’t take a chance.” I told him the chemo really made me ill for a day or three afterwards and this time he smiled. “That’s because it’s working.”
My late sister, Florence, who died of this exact same disease a decade-and-a-half ago, showed a lot more class than I’ve managed to manifest. She never complained. I do. Though a published and recognized writer in France, she never wrote about her illness. I do. It helps me somehow, to openly say that I am scared and weary.
A few months ago I lost a great and good friend, Jim, to bladder cancer. He also bore his troubles with stoicism. I envy both his and Florence’s courage.
I wish I could say I am grateful the disease has been more or less controlled for several years now, but I’m not that grateful. I’m sad and pissed off and resentful. But then maybe, after all is said and done, that’s okay.