It’s hard to tell if newfound fears are simply a plight of aging or legitimate reactions to emerging issues of our day, particularly in the realm of health. Did I obliviously overlook the vast effects of cancer until I was old enough to experience the first and second-hand repercussions? Are cases truly becoming more and more common, or has the rise of social media simply exposed us to the ugly truths that have existed all along?
I’m not an expert, nor have I spent enough time Googling charts and statistics spelling out the generational differences in diagnoses, so I don’t know the answers to those questions. All I know is that in my reality, and the realities of my fellow millennials, the dread of how cancer will (not might—will) affect our lives is not an idle concern.
Those of us who are lucky have only heard indirect stories about friends/family-of-friends facing chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, remission, or death. Or perhaps read this week’s headline about the brain cancer found in former presidential candidate, John McCain.
Those of us who aren’t as lucky have faced the battle ourselves, or watched a loved one’s life turn upside down by a failing body. Having experienced the latter, it’s hard to know which one is worse.
When my 54-year-old mother was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2012, I was living in New York City while she resided in Virginia Beach, VA. She called to deliver the news one evening, sounding out of breath and nothing like the clear-voiced, strong triathlete I spoke to on a daily basis. She casually ask how I was doing, which I ignored as I immediately demanded an explanation for her audible discomfort. Before she even said a word, every inch of my body was on high alert, bracing for the worst.
And yet, I was confused. Hadn’t we just spoken the day before, her voice ringing through the phone with upbeat advice about my tragic woes of a 23-year-old? Twenty-four hours later, she’s telling me that she just underwent some minor procedures, having not warned me because she wanted to gather the necessary information. She presented me with what they knew so far: After spotting blood in her urine, she immediately went to the doctor, where they determined she didn’t have a normal blood cell count. After further testing, it turns out she has cancer. In the bladder, but it may have spread.
I’ll always remember that I was wearing a red short sleeve turtleneck, standing on a street corner in the Lower East Side, trying to find a restaurant for the birthday dinner of a guy I’d recently met on OkCupid. My heart rate rose, my face flushed, my hands started shaking. I told her I’d come home as soon as possible, that she should get some rest.
I texted my brother and sister-in-law to inform them that I was on the way to their apartment on the Upper East Side. Drop whatever you’re doing and please meet me there, I said. It’s important, I added. I didn’t know if they knew yet.
I was an unexplained no-show to the birthday dinner.
On the ride to my brother’s place, I wondered if the people sitting across from me on the train could tell that my life had just changed. If they thought the tears wobbling on the brim of my eyes were leftover from a fight with my nonexistent boyfriend, or perhaps because I’d just seen a moving Broadway musical. I wondered why I never noticed other people’s lives crashing down around me while I sat reading some silly teenage fiction book each morning on the subway.
Given the late stage of my mother’s diagnosis, the dread hung heavy. Optimism on the outside, of course, but dread on the inside. Five months after that phone call, as my mother lay on her death bed, I was brave enough to ask her about her initial reaction to the news. She said that before they even found out the severity of her condition, she knew it was her time. She just knew.
I don’t want you to think my mother gave up. Trust me—she was a warrior. But as a woman of strong faith, she was well aware that sometimes these things are out of our control. She trusted that if God was calling her home, He had His reasons.
Not everyone has that reaction, however. Some people know it’s not their time. In their heart and in their gut, they know that this isn’t the end. And sometimes people aren’t sure either way. I guess there’s no “normal” reaction. Isn’t that the case with everything?
When my friends and I had an outrageously fun pool party in her honor the night of her memorial service, I was told there’s no normal reaction. When I was back at work less than a week after she died, I was told that there is no normal reaction. When I had to call my friend in the middle of the night to tell her that I’d just thought about taking all the Advil in my medicine cabinet, I was told that there is no normal reaction.
While our reactions are often catered to, supported, and guided by the help of people we love, the one thing most people refuse to accept is a blank answer next to “why.” Why did this happen? Does cancer run in your family? Did she eat organic foods? Was she exposed to anything? Did she smoke? Did she drink? Did a butterfly flap its wings in Africa and create a hurricane that landed in New Orleans, which swirled up some particles that made their way to Virginia Beach five years later and into her drinking water?
More often than not, we don’t know why some people get cancer and others don’t. Why some people can smoke a pack a day until they die at the ripe old age of 96, and why some babies develop brain cancer in a matter of months.
Everyone wants to keep it from happening to them, to their husbands, to their wives. To their parents and children and friends. We all want that. I do, too. So I do my research and buy organic fruit, but not organic peanut butter because that stuff’s gross. I try to reduce my stress so that the baby currently growing inside of me—my mother’s grandchild― remains healthy, but I still get embarrassingly worked up when someone drives under the speed limit in the left lane.
There’s only so much we can do, folks. Take it from me. Take it from my upstanding mother who only drank one (albeit one very large—God love her) glass of wine at a time, ran two half marathons a year, was a registered nurse, never smoked, rarely drank soda, and didn’t have an ounce of bad karma out to get her. Take it from my friend’s sister, a 21-year-old college senior with her whole life ahead of her, which she gets to start living again thanks to successful treatment. Take it from the young mother I follow on Instagram, whose child spends most of her days in Children’s Hospital for the King’s Daughters.
We can make smart lifestyle choices, pray, and remain in touch with our bodies, but the odds of cancer affecting us or someone we love is nearly unavoidable. But don’t let that overwhelm you with despair. The good news is that all of you reading this right now are alive. Some of you are healthy, and others are not. Some of you are going through what I did in 2012, and some of you are beautifully living a life full of first-world problems and hard decisions about paint colors and ice cream flavors. No matter your situation, you have a little while longer to laugh, forgive, enjoy, love, and appreciate.
Cancer doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean it has the power to replace joy. Instead of letting fear debilitate us, we have to let it spur us to live even more intentionally, gracefully, and vibrantly. And look around― the resources to help you handle that moment the “c” word looks you in the eye are extensive and wonderfully communal. Good can and always does come from bad if you let it.
I hope we find a cure for cancer more than anything in the world. Until then, and even after then, I leave you with my mother’s last words of advice: Don’t save the good wine. Enjoy the chance to drink it.