Cancer changes how I feel about death

Today Facebook notified me of someone’s birthday. Sadly, she died several years ago. My first reaction was to brighten up when I got the notification. She had been a student—the hard working, teachable, interesting kind. The best kind. But then the cloud descended, the sadness, the anger about cancer and all it’s stolen from this world, from me.

I had been thinking about death already because yesterday I held a writing workshop at Gilda’s and I expected a participant to attend who wanted to write a graphic novel. But he died between signing up six months ago and the beginning of the workshop.

Cancer changes a lot of things. For me, it ushered in a an era of loss. So many people I’ve come to know—some very well and some just acquaintances—have died. Their names and faces linger in my mind and heart.

I look at death differently, or maybe I just feel it differently since cancer. Each death pierces me, some punctures deeper than others, but all of them sharp. I no longer shrug off death. It is no longer a distant sadness, an inevitability. It feels personal.

Cancer becomes a monster, a beast preying on vulnerable human beings, turning children into the motherless and wives into widows. It hollows out families, crushes spirits, and lands solid blows on friends, colleagues, teachers.

As I continue to be involved with the cancer community, I feel my anger growing into rage. And, I feel overwhelming guilt because my own cancer was so mild.

Sorrow is a flood sometimes, leaving us treading the waters of grief, exhausted, afraid, empty, waiting for the waters to recede.

A few people have encouraged me to stop engaging with the cancer community. It is awash with sadness and suffering and I understand why someone would want to protect me from that. But it’s not a community I can leave. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop feeling that it is my community and a kind of home.

I think that cancer is never over for some of us. Those of us in remission still have traces of the disease left behind whether they are psychic or physical. The late effects of the disease and treatment still shape our lives and our reactions, our day-to-day being in the world and our choices.

Cancer has a way of demystifying death and revealing it to be the brutal, relentless force that it is. Jason Isbell has a song, “Elephant,” whose lyrics hit me hard:

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me
No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow

There’s no ignoring the elephant for me anymore. It is the fallen angel on my shoulder whispering, “I’m here.”

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