I, and most of my friends who’ve had cancer, choose the word “remission” to describe our situation after treatment when tests find no evidence of disease. I’ve met people who describe themselves as “cured,” but not many. One friend, more than twenty years after successful treatment for a stage four cancer, refers to cancer in the past tense, but I’ve never heard him say that he’s “cured.”
It’s not that we’re all pessimists or without faith, although some of us are both of those things. It’s mostly that our understanding of cancer has changed dramatically. In my support group we commonly say that everyone has cancer cells in their bodies. Not all of them cause problems, but we all have them. I don’t know if this is scientifically true, but it is true practically speaking. Even if they don’t cause trouble, rogue cells are ubiquitous.
Cancer is quiet, an inaudible whisper. It finds a secluded place to hide and gets well established before it begins humming and then wailing. It is deadly because of its quietness. If you don’t know it’s there, then you do nothing to keep it from growing and spreading.
Diagnosis of early stage cancers often results from routine screenings or from accidental discovery rather than from pain or disfunction. In the ironic and cruel world of cancer, this counts as good luck.
It takes keen eyes to see cancer. We call these ultrasound, CT, PET, and MRI scans. We also need scopes to thread internal eyes into our bodies. We can sometimes read the teas leaves of our blood and urine to see signs of cancer. And, yet, cancer can hide from all of these.
To find “no evidence of disease,” then, is not quite the same thing as being cured. It’s akin to being found “not guilty” rather than “innocent” in the judicial world.
“Remission” is a good word because it captures the pragmatic optimism of being found with no evidence of disease. Maybe you’re cured and maybe you’re not, but you are in a place where cancer has abated and subsided. I no longer say, “I have bladder cancer.” I say, “My cancer is in remission.”
I like the word “remission” because of its ethical and spiritual connotations, too. The dictionary lists these definitions: “To be released from debt or penalty. Forgiveness. Pardon.”
As I’ve said before in this blog, I have struggled with feelings of guilt since being diagnosed with cancer. I have never been the one who asks, “Why me?” because I feel like my cancer is well deserved. Despite giving up religion, I’ve never given up the whole cause/effect, sin/punishment dynamic. I call it “karma.” Cancer has seemed like a “what goes around, comes around” sort of condition for me.
In October I will have my fourth cystoscopy, which will officially make me one year with “no evidence of disease.” One of my dear friends, on the other hand, went into hospice last week. If my cancer is evidence of a punishing universe, hers is evidence of a malevolent and random one. She is less deserving of suffering than anyone I know.
Remission, then, is not a state I deserve. I have been released not because of karma, but because of grace.
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