I attend a support group at the Cancer Support Center in Homewood, IL. When we have a new person visit the group, the usual protocol is to go around the room and introduce ourselves. It always stands me still.
A friend of mine, Betsy, died of breast cancer when she was 41. When we were in graduate school together, she used to say that people could never have real conversations about love because we’d seen too many movies. We spoke lines that we’d heard and set scenes that we’d seen a hundred times.
But, the feeling of being in a movie wears off pretty quickly, or it did for me, as soon as love gets past kissing in the rain and moves into waking up in bed next to a person who, like you, has dirty hair and stale breath.
So, my point is that having bladder cancer isn’t much at all like being Ali McGraw in Love Story. There’s not much romance to it and there aren’t many pre-written lines to borrow. I was admitted to the hospital via the ER last August, and this is how I described my symptoms in an email to my brother and best friend: “I've been peeing blood the past few days, which attained Stephen King levels over the weekend.” It’s a good description of the symptoms, but it’s not quite ready for prime time.
Most of the time it’s not enough to say, “I have bladder cancer.” People always want to know more than that; they want to know the low down of your diagnosis. Bottom line for most folks is, Are you going to die? I don’t mean that anyone ever asks this. It’s just that they want to know. Cancer is monolithic and singular for the uninitiated. The slow grind of tests, the long wait for results, the surgeries, the treatments, the second opinions, the subtlety of diagnosis are all overwhelming and frustratingly complex.
But inside the support group the slow grind is the rhythm of life. The expectation is that we will put flesh on the bones of our diagnosis. I have a hard time getting my mouth around the words, though. On one hand, I want to tell my story. I need to tell my story, and I need to tell it differently every time. I need to tell it better. On the other hand, I dread telling my story because I don’t really want it to be my story.
Still, there it is. It’s my turn. “My name is Writingprof, and I have bladder cancer. I have had two surgeries, the first to remove a malignant tumor, the second to make sure that the tumor had been completely removed. I have had six weeks of treatment, and my most recent scope shows no evidence of cancer. I will have another scope in three months.”
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