It’s Cancer. Now What?

Your first and most fervent wish — for the biopsy to be negative — did not come true. Life goes on.

Schadenfreude is your new best friend

You may think you’ll take advantage of your “down time” during treatment to catch up on classics you’ve always wanted to read.

Au contraire! The brain-fog of chemo will prevent you from understanding anything more complicated than a menu.

My guilty pleasure of reality TV was just the ticket. For the record, only the first seasons of reality shows are worth watching. That’s where the train wrecks are.

If a show becomes a hit, sponsors start meddling with the casting and scripting to make the show palatable to mainstream audiences.

Monica Lewinsky hosted Mr. Personality

Gone are the religious nuts! Gone are the stalkers! Madison Avenue and Wall Street sure know how to ruin a perfectly good show.

Fortunately 2003 was a bumper-crop year for bizarre, short-lived reality shows. I was one of the lucky few who caught Mr. Personality, hosted by Monica Lewinsky.

The premise of Mr. Personality was that a woman would date men whose faces were covered in masks. She had to make choices based on charm rather than looks. The men were allowed to remove their masks only for the night-vision make-out sessions. The show ran just four episodes, but who can forget them!

America’s Next Top Model premiered in 2003. I saw the first season, tipped off as I was by a fellow cancer survivor. Low production values and a sharp, sadistic edge made the first season a classic. I remember one scene where the losers of a competition had to clean toilets and mop floors while the winners received massages in the same room. (As usual for hits, this show was glamorized and santitized in subsequent seasons.)

In the NBC show Average Joe: Hawaii a beautiful woman had to choose between hunks and “average joes.” One critic pointed out that these guys were nowhere near average. They were more like not-even-in-the-same-ballpark joes.

David Daskal from season two, can be seen on this short video clip. Viewers would not soon forget Mr. Daskal on headphones rocking out. Boy howdy, that was some good television! And here is one of the infamous “reveal” scenes from Average Joe.

Temptation Island, a Fox show in which couples in long-term relationships were separated to date others and test their commitment, went about as deep into the gutter as reality TV has ever ventured. Lucky for you, the entire first season has been archived here — all seven episodes, free! Episode four gives you a good handle on this parade of tawdriness.

Married by America

Married by America

And then there was the granddaddy of all train wrecks, Married By America. Not only was this series limited to one year, it was limited to one season. As in spring—that kind of season. Married by America premiered March 2003 and ended forever April 2003.

Contestants who’d never met or laid eyes on each other were introduced separately on the air. Viewers called in and voted on who should marry whom. The couples would then go off to camera-laden hotels and mansions to get to know one another.

A twist: Counselors, not contestants, voted people off in this series. The final two couples walked to the alter and there discovered, on television, whether or not their betrothed wanted to get married.

During one episode of Married by America I was laughed so hard I could not speak. Once I regained my composure, I said, “I don’t know how I could stand having cancer if it weren’t for shows like this.”

From Virginia Heffernan’s critique in Slate:

Tony, whom Billie Jeanne decided she loved at a glance, lacked the worldliness necessary to appreciate her tragic Marilyn-like willingness to give him everything. Indeed, such self-abnegation is not for all tastes. Tony wanted something normal.

“I don’t,” said Tony.

“I have to go,” [Billie Jeanne] whispered at the altar, retreating back down the aisle that she had just triumphantly walked…Tony showed pangs of remorse while his tight-lipped father shook his hand in congratulations…The lawn was still decorated by Fox for a bland universal American wedding. The pastor had slunk away.

Inside the Fox mansion, Billie Jeanne sobbed harder and harder, turning away comforters. The breakable girl, her hair loose, seemed now to be wearing no makeup, and she looked like a very little girl. “I’m a joke,” she said, on reality television.

It wasn’t the Met, but it was a sad and lovely piece of theater.

Of course, I’m not the first person to discover TV snark. Television Without Pity has been doing it masterfully for years. And breast cancer patient Miriam Engelberg explored the topic in her 2006 cartoon book Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person.

The big picture

During my loooooooong period of post-cancer adjustment, I found myself learning about people who’d had it worse than me.

One day I saw a banner ad marking the 60th anniversary of the death of Sophie Scholl. I looked her up.

In 1943 Scholl distributed pamphlets urging Munich college students to resist the Nazis. She was arrested, and five days later executed. She was 21 years old. Even if I died tomorrow, I would have outlived her.

The Final Days

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)

Unlike Sophie Scholl, at least I was surrounded by people who wanted me to live.

In the early 1970s I studied photojournalism. Walker Evans, who photographed Depression-era poverty in a landmark book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, came to speak to our class.

One student asked, “How could you take people’s pictures and then just leave them there to suffer?”

Mr. Evans replied, “But isn’t that life? In some cases you get to leave and they have to stay, but next time it might be you that has to stay, and others who get to leave.”

I remembered the words of Mr. Evans when I sat trapped in the chemo chair.

No exit

Some patients consciously or subconsciously seek a way out of the nightmare. But with cancer, the only real exit is suicide, a common fantasy for cancer patients. The appeal is control over a frightening and largely uncontrollable disease.

At first I did see my life as a nightmare, but later I tried to think of cancer as a trip to a foreign country. Once I’m there, I’m stuck, even if I’m sick or uncomfortable. On this trip I would meet new people and see new things. And I would come home a different person.

I found myself remembering a friend’s description of a night of camping, with ants, heavy rain and other small catastrophes. I asked, “What did you do?” My friend shrugged and said, “I tied up a hammock as best I could and figured I was in for a miserable night.”

I’m in for a miserable night. It has a nice ring to it.

Say it loud: Cancer sucks

You don’t have to turn cancer into a good experience. You don’t have to become a better person after cancer.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you strong. What if the opposite is true? What if crippling experiences make you weaker? At least in the short run. Anyone who knows me could testify I was physically and mentally exhausted a long time after treatment ended.

Sometimes the good that comes from a bad experience does not reveal itself for years. Sometimes no good at all ever comes.

The Sweet Hereafter (1998)

In the first year after my diagnosis, I watched the film The Sweet Hereafter, based on a novel by Russell Banks and directed by Atom Egoyan.

The story involves a school bus accident in which almost all the town’s children are killed.

The bus driver survives. So does a 15-year-old girl, but she’s now paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

By the end of the movie the girl engineers a private victory, and she achieves a kind of peace. It’s she who reveals the meaning of the title when she says:

I wonder if you understand that all of us—Dolores, me, the children who survived, the children who didn’t — that we’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter.

Maybe some things in life are so devastating that it’s foolish to expect healing. Maybe you have to accept that the worst has happened and you’ll never be whole again, that you’re a citizen of a different town now.

But even in a wheelchair you can watch a sunset. You can enjoy the sound of children playing.

No matter what my cancer did, I knew I’d still have my friends. I’d still have books and music. I’d have the night sky and the sun. I’d have my thoughts.

It became a kind of prayer during treatment, and every day after: I’ll still have these, until the end.


About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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