Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why Me? Why Not Me? Part Six

This is part 6 of Alison's account of her diagnosis and treatment of bladder cancer.

by Alison

Cancer: Metaphors and Positive Thinking

I finished my last treatment two weeks ago. Everyone at the doctor’s office was so nice, lots of hugs and good wishes. Last Thursday was the first free Thursday afternoon I’ve had in two months. I went to my meditation practice group and sank into the deepest, quietest calm I can imagine.

Next comes another cystoscopy, after a month. We are supposed to take a look inside an all-white, plain, unbeautiful but oh so useful bladder. I was surprised to learn that there will be no biopsy, just a look. (There will also be urine sent to cytology.) If we do see cancer, it means the BCG treatment failed. My understanding is that if it failed, the next step is surgical removal of my bladder (and neighboring insides).

I am not particularly freaked out by that possibility. When I compare an artificial bladder and bladder opening (still somewhere due south of my belly button) to the prospect of metastases and tortuous chemo/radiation treatments, there is no contest. Bring it on – I can practice writing my name in the snow like the big fellas!

Now this is probably another example of what some people call my positive attitude. I have mentioned this before, but I wanted to elaborate on it today. I have no particular quarrel with the notion of positive attitude. I know plenty of perky people, and they are fine. I am fine with them. But I am not one of them. I am really quite a negative person. I do not know all the reasons, but surely the early onset of the illness Depression is one of them.

From about fourth grade I remember times of feeling gloomy and sad and wistful and different … for no reason. I was often, as a child, unduly irritable and at times desperately angry. I must have had sparkly good days too – there are pictures of me smiling and laughing with my family.

But I had (and have) a mood disorder that in my case is a tough nut. I take medicine, and I always will take medicine, just to feel close to normal. Without it I tend to weep uncontrollably. I also tend to become watchful and suspicious about other people and what their (surely bad) intentions toward me might be. Really, you don’t want to know me without the Miracle of Modern Medicine.

It is not a pretty sight. The disorder has cost me jobs that for a healthy person would have added up to a fruitful, long-lasting career; one of two marriages; several friendships; and many days that should have been good days and were not. It has taken the ebullience out of milestones. Say I should feel “light as a balloon in the air” after some accomplishment; what I really take away with me is what an ordeal it was and how I should have done better. It might be days or even weeks before I get over it, and I may never look back on it with satisfaction. I can say there have been times I was so depressed that, while I would not take my life, I wished someone else would.

Yet here I am, matter-of-fact and straightforward about this disease cancer. When people call my attitude “positive,” I think it is because I am not scared stiff; I do not act sick; I am not “boiled down to [my] essential animal self” as Dana Jennings characterized serious illness in his New York Times blog about prostate cancer and treatment. I am glad of all those things. I would not enjoy walking around all day scared stiff.

However – here is the catch – some day I will, unless I have my mother’s good fortune in an instant, painless (though far too early) death. I can only say I am not yet negative about this illness. And if or when the day comes that I am negative, I do not want to be told that I am failing to fight my opponent properly.

Meghan O’Rourke of Blog XX in Salon says just today that continually using tired old war metaphors about illnesses, especially cancer and AIDS, can and does keep people from just reaching out in human care and love to others. Really, hectoring sick people to keep a stiff upper lip, never give up, be courageous, fight that good fight – isn’t that kind of perverse? If or when my time comes and I want to alternately languish and droop and then cry and rail at fate, I believe my good friends will be there for me (won’t you? guys?) even if I have “given up” in their eyes. Do we really need battle metaphors to say, “She got sick. She did well for a while, then she got sicker, and later she died. We miss her” ??

We all gotta die of something. It’s gonna happen someday. And that, I believe, is what people wish they could wrestle to the ground and conquer.


  1. Alison, this is so well said and thought-provoking - thank you so much for yet another brilliant installment - it deserves to be read by many, many, many people - and vice versa!

  2. Thank you dear Anne. I was hoping you had found Part Six. Probably a couple more to go! I hope you are doing well. Love and Klems.