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Joan Wickersham

‘You’ve got cancer’

Finding comfort in survivors’ stories

(Kelly Blair for The Boston Globe)
By Joan Wickersham
March 18, 2011

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MY MOTHER was diagnosed with colon cancer in May, 1992. It was a Friday afternoon; she’d been admitted to the hospital with a high fever. There would be more tests the following week, but it looked as if the cancer had spread. We spent a lot of that weekend together in her hospital room, talking and being silent. She talked about her older sister, Bertha, who had died of cancer at age 31, when my mother was 16. “She died screaming,’’ my mother said. “Promise you won’t let that happen to me.’’

My mother did not die screaming. She didn’t even die of cancer. Although it turned out that her cancer had spread, just as the doctors suspected, to several other places in her abdomen, she was successfully treated with surgery and chemotherapy. She lived for another 16 years, never had a recurrence, and died of something entirely unrelated.

At the time when her sister died, in the early 1940s, the very phrase “cancer survivor’’ would have been practically an oxymoron. Cancer meant death. If the doctors figured out that you had it, it was already too late. By the 1990s, when my mother was diagnosed, the landscape of diagnosis and treatment had changed dramatically — but her perception hadn’t. She heard the word “cancer’’ and went immediately to a place of no hope.

Then people started showing up with their own cancer stories. Some were friends whose stories she’d heard before, but now she listened with a different kind of attention and sympathy and, yes, self-interest. Others were people she knew, but not well enough to know that they’d had cancer. A colleague. My old boss. A distant cousin, whom my mother hadn’t seen for years and who insisted, now, on visiting.

“Can’t you put her off?’’ my mother grumbled to me. But the cousin wanted to come — she’d only stay for a few minutes, she said. She and my mother ended up talking for an hour about the cousin’s experience, 20 years before, with breast cancer. The cousin was as brisk as ever, but her kindness, and the purposefulness of her visit, were bracing to my mother. The cousin’s toughness showed my mother a new angle on cancer: Get it, get over it, get on with it. If you could.

My mother hated words like “hope’’ and “inspiration’’ (she thought they were schlocky), but that’s what all these stories from survivors (another word she would have hated) were offering her. She wasn’t stupid; she was right to be terrified by the diagnosis she’d been given, and she was right that cancer can be deadly. But, coming from a generation where survival was a rarity, she was learning that the spectrum of cancer outcomes was much broader, and far more optimistic, than she had previously believed. It comforted her.

According to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control last week, one in 20 American adults is now a cancer survivor. Statistics are always tricky to interpret, but this figure not only suggests that treatments and outcomes continue to improve, it also points to the possibility of an ongoing shift in cancer’s psychological landscape. It made me think about the many people I know who have had cancer: a high school English teacher, two good friends from college, my old boss, a cousin’s husband, several writing friends — and the list goes on. Two have died; everyone else is alive and healthy.

Cancer is not one disease, but many different diseases. Everyone’s experience with it is different. Anecdotes can be misleading: you cannot assume that someone else’s experience, good or bad, will apply to you. But as surviving cancer becomes more and more common, the likelihood is greater that if we do get sick we’ll know someone — or many people — who can talk to us about, or just provide a living example of, cancer survival. The politician, the chef, the conductor, the hairdresser: any one of them, or all of them, going about their daily lives, will show us that the thing we’re so afraid may kill us may not kill us.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.