When I see the subtitle, or mere descriptor, “a memoir of cancer” or “a memoir of survival,” or “addiction” or, and perhaps worst, “recovery,” I figuratively run like hell.
I was not devastated by the news that I had cancer “again.” “Again” is the operative word. To say that my cancer is “back,” would have been wrong. This is, they tell me, completely unrelated to my earlier cancer. Aside from telling my wife about it, and my parents, I think I was pretty calm about it. I tried to adopt a Dylanesque view: “It’s life, and life only.” I heard the words in my head in his voice.
On the second day after my surgery, still two days out from hearing the biopsy results, one of our students, an international caliber runner from Kenya, “went missing.” He was last seen Sunday evening, lightly dressed. He did not have his car keys or cell phone with him. It has snowed almost steadily since then with nighttime temperatures approaching the single digits. His roommates reported him missing on Monday morning. Also: his former roommate, another world-class runner from Kenya, killed himself here in Anchorage last spring. I am thinking about this guy and his long strange trip.
I have alluded, somewhat elliptically, in a couple pieces of writing to my experience (now experiences) with cancer. But even though it has taken up a disproportionate space in my psyche, I tend to prefer to write about the things that have always interested me, namely my love of the literary world and my love for the mountain life, each a deep well that I have yet to exhaust.
That aside, here are a few cancer notes written on the morning after I heard that the biopsy report on my melanoma and lymph nodes has come back negative (which is, of course, positive).
I noted that Steve Jobs’ cancer was discovered in a routine CT scan for kidney stones. Exactly how my kidney cancer was discovered. This would be about the only thing I have in common with Jobs, so far as I can tell.
When I first met Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, a Yu’pik elder, in the summer of 2008 he was walking on crutches and already in his mid-seventies. I asked him about his crutches and he said that it started with kidney cancer, but that he never doubted it would come back at him. At the time of our conversation he had lived about ten more years since his kidney cancer was first diagnosed and he lived three more until his death earlier this year. He knew it would kill him, but we talked mostly of the terrible problem of suicide of young men in the native villages of rural Alaska. He was among a handful of persons I have met in my life who I felt have possessed wisdom.
Last summer I met Richard Rodriguez. Among our many commonalities was a Catholic upbringing in a shared historical moment, a love of books from an early age, and kidney cancer. Richard became aware of his through night sweats and various actual physical problems. I experienced none of these. “Ah,” he said, “you were asymptomatic.”
I don’t much care for the language of cancer or even the word itself. Or even talking about it in a round about way. My cousin Terri said, “Mel is a bad ca.” I know, that’s about all the letters I wish to use too. I never liked Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor.” I always thought that her objection to the metaphors people use to describe cancer was purely personal, as if what she really objected to was other people talking about it at all, as if what she really objected to were people talking about her, as a “victim.” I object to that, too. But it’s hard to object to the aptness of war as a metaphor for cancer. A more timely analogy now might be zombification, the process by which the self is not the self, but is taken over by this other life-force which is a death force. I think I have vowed to never use the word “zombie” in my writing. At least, I meant to do so. So that’s my one and only transgression.
This melanoma that they found a few weeks ago was odd. It had no melanin in it. It was, the surgeon said, “amelanomic.”
My friend Tama, a melanoma survivor herself, said, “You are a two-time cancer survivor (how weird is that?).” Well, it’s pretty damned weird. Because this cancer, too, was without symptoms. My suffering, such as it has been, has been mostly not physical. And weird too because, though aging, I am more active and more fit than ever. The weekend before my surgery I skied to Rabbit Lake, a twelve-mile plus roundtrip on sketchy snow with about 1200 feet in elevation gain. Then, the next day I made my weekly visit to the summit of Flattop in gnarly winter weather. I felt great every minute of those outings.
When the surgeon called Tuesday night, long after office hours, to report the good news of my negative tests, I was flooded with relief, but it is a calm relief. By the time I fell asleep, the runner from Kenya had not been found.
Since my last cancer (2005) I have tried to move forward, keeping in mind that every day is a gift. Last night, when my friends heard my good news, many used the word “celebration.” Oh, I’ll celebrate, (writing this is a celebration, I promise) but the celebration I have in mind is simply to return to my “every day is a gift” philosophy. I am celebrating every day, believe me.
I can return to my work, my writing projects, my skiing life. I can return to training for the Tour of Anchorage and the Alyeska Town League. I can train with Aisha for her triathlons, and keep doing yoga. Hit Alyeska with my sons. Enjoy the holidays. I can return to planning a climbing trip to the Alaska Range in the spring and a trip to the Himalaya in the fall.
“You are alive,” Richard Rodriguez told us, “And you have your pen in your hand.”
The runner from Kenya was found, alive (against all odds, in my opinion). He appeared, severely hypothermic, in the lobby of the hotel on campus at 3:30 a.m. this morning. I am wishing the very best for him, and would love to hear his story (though not entitled to it).
“It’s life, and life only.”
If someone had said to me, six years ago, “”Every day is a gift,” I would have been polite, but inwardly dismissive. But I believe those words today. I hope you hear me.