Life-ending cancer showing up in my body changed everything. I mean everything. Physically, my body is very, very, different. I’m minus an entire category of secondary sexual bits, plus one side of my chest is caved in, for good measure. This is the most obvious physical reminder of my cancer.
My brain is changed. It doesn’t work as well. I lose bits of information, constantly. I lose the thread of a conversation in the middle of my sentence. When I mention or apologize for my muddle-headedness and forgetfulness, people react by telling me they are no different, being forty years old happens to everyone. I usually laugh and move on. I don’t bother correcting them. I don’t bother telling them about the studies which show markedly slow and never again the same cognitive function associated with chemotherapy. Or the physical changes that occur in a brain attached to a body experiencing long term chronic pain. I also don’t tell them how much it stings to have my disturbing, terrifying, maddening, chronic, experience dismissed out of hand.
My life-expectancy changed. That term ‘life-expectancy’ can be read in different ways. In the concrete, it changed the reasonable estimate of how long I can expect to live. Everyone has different statistics on this kind of thing and the numbers change, constantly. In the aggregate the answer, according to WebMD, is I died at least a dozen years ago and I’m too stubborn to admit it. On a more philosophical level, ‘life-expectancy’ is about what I can expect the rest of my life to be like, what I can reasonably expect my life to feel like until it ends. This has been both greatly expanded and unfairly foreshortened.
On the other hand, life-ending cancer showing up has changed absolutely nothing. I am exactly the same person I was the week before I was diagnosed. I have the same flaws, the same charming eccentricities, etc. Cancer didn’t change my hang-ups. It didn’t change the bundle of psychic wounds and emotional pains I’ve dragged through every stage of my life like a moving box labelled ‘ktchn misc’ that has remained unopened through three address changes.
I am still furious, humiliated, and horrified at the amount of time I waste on any given day. I still am ready to assume the worst in people I don’t like. I still hold people at a distance. I still set unrealistic goals and beat myself up when I don’t reach those goals. I continually don’t take the right risks and unceasingly regret the wrong ones I did take. Having life-ending cancer has not cured me of any of these things.
Frustratingly, my cancer hasn’t changed the behavior or thoughts or lives of the people around me, either. We all still behave toward one another much the same way we did before the cancer. Friends and family alike, we all still seem as ready to love, hurt, anger, delight, and disappoint in measures equal to pre-cancer levels.
If you want to know how much a former good friend does not like you, get cancer. Even better, get terminal cancer and then let that person know you have terminal cancer and you hope to mend rifts. Then listen to the silence, the complete, absolute, total, silence. Watch, how not even for the sake of appearances, they continue to ignore you in the middle of a virtual roomful of people.
It is maddening, how much of my life is exactly the same, what little effect cancer had. It seems distinctly unfair that along with all of the negative changes that have been wrought, there could have been a few improvements made about the way. Why can’t I be a machine of productivity, churning out writing, following through on ideas, making it all happen, every day? Why aren’t I better at risk assessment? Take more of the correct risks and less of the incorrect? Why can’t I allow more openness? Why can’t I assume the best? Why don’t I have more answers?
Perhaps I can look at it as a win. Maybe the big win is I am the same person I was before I got cancer. Maybe it is a good thing other people continue to love or hate me in exactly the same way. Maybe the best answer to all these questions is that nothing changed, nothing will ever change. No matter what happens, I am who I am.