I Have Cancer and Haven’t Learned Anything New About Life


Like me, Tom Brokaw has multiple myeloma, an incurable form of blood plasma cancer. He wrote about it in the New York Times this weekend, and today Julia Belluz writes about Brokaw:

Brokaw then describes what sounds like another full-time job: making sure thoughts about dying don’t consume what’s left of his life, and that he learns to accept his illness.

“This cancer ordeal is by far the worst, though it has redeeming qualities,” he writes. Cancer has heightened his awareness about the fragility of life, brought him fellowship with other patients, and made him appreciate the “doctors and laboratory technicians who spend their lives in tedious pursuit of a cure.”

….Some patients — notably Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchens and Robin Roberts — have gone public with the details of their cancer experience. And we have a lot to learn from them. With insights like theirs on what it means to live with — and most importantly — accept cancer as part of life, maybe some of the shame and dread will go away.

At the admittedly likely risk of sounding glib, I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t learned a deep life lesson from having cancer. I haven’t battled it. I’ve just done the stuff my doctor has told me to do. I haven’t become more aware of the fragility of life. I always knew about that. And I’d say it’s not even remotely accurate to say that “some” patients have gone public with the details of their cancer experience. I’d say instead that TV and magazines are literally drenched with celebrities going public with details about their cancer experience. I have cancer, and even I get tired of the virtually endless parade of “brave” movie stars going on Access Hollywood to talk about their struggle.1

Now, I will say a couple of things. Like Brokaw, I have come to appreciate cancer researchers even more. They’re the ones who are truly fighting. And I’d also say that it’s made me appreciate my friends and family more than before, simply because of all the help and support they’ve provided.

It’s also true that everyone reacts to cancer differently. Some people like to talk about it a lot. Some people benefit from a support group. Some people are scared to death. Some people do indeed have life-changing insights. I’m in favor of everyone responding to cancer in whatever way makes them feel better.

Then again, there are those of us who simply have cancer and take our meds and hope for the best. Just like I take my blood pressure meds and hope I don’t get a heart attack. I don’t mean that it’s not a big deal—it is, and I’m not trying to be flip about it—but I wonder how many cancer patients are like me? I’m part of the segment that thinks it’s a bad experience, endures the chemo meds with a grimace, and hopes it’s curable—but otherwise has no real epiphanies or feels the need to talk endlessly about it.2 Are we a majority? More?

1If I have a pet peeve, this is it. There’s nothing brave about going through an unpleasant experience. Nor in talking about it, especially on the cover of People. I’d really like to do away with this word for anyone over the age of ten.

2Actually, I don’t mind talking about it at all. The reason I generally don’t is because it makes other people uncomfortable. Perhaps I’m just more accepting of death than most people? I’m not sure.