I have a grievance with the way society treats cancer. I have a grievance with the way cancer treats society. I have many grievances, but I have more hope than grievances.
I do not remember the day – rather, days – my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, nor do I remember exactly the types of cancer she had, because I was merely two years old. She had four types of cancer – one was skin cancer from a life without sunscreen; she passed away on February 18th, 2007, and there is a star on my calendar to remind me to eat a comically large bowl of coffee ice-cream for her every year on this day. As far as her experience with cancer, that is all I know. In contrast, I remember vividly who she was, despite being almost four years old when she passed away. She loved going on adventures and hikes, and she showed me one sweet afternoon how the poppies appeared to have little faces on them like in Alice and Wonderland. She and my mom always bickered when it came to taking care of my brother and me, which I can tell she may have strategically passed down to me. She was the strongest woman I ever knew, and she had an elegant poise that paired with bubbly passion for adventure to pave bold new paths in government and in life as a female. My dad fondly remembers her singing lines from the Sound of Music (one of her favorite movies, in which Julie Andrews always reminds me of her) in Austria after attempting to drag everyone else up the enormous flight of stairs. “She would try to bring everyone along with her on her wild adventures, but if you didn’t come with her, she would confidently go alone.” One of my earliest memories was walking into her house and my grandpa telling me “G.G. had a rough day and isn’t feeling well, so try to be a little quiet.” The next thing I know, she pops up from the couch, gives me a hug, and takes me to the freezer to retrieve one of many pints of coffee ice-cream. These are my memories of her. My memories of her are not when my parents sat us down on the couch and told me G.G. went to heaven. My memories of her are not when I had dreams at night that she had come back and brought a big teddy bear with a navy-blue velvet bow. My memories of her are not when I constantly flipped through a small blue hardcover book entitled What is Heaven?. She lives on in me and in my heart, and even though I only had the pleasure of spending four years with her, I am more her than anyone else in my life.
I do not remember the day my dad was diagnosed with cancer, but I do know he was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma. I recently learned that he had thirteen tumors, many of which were in his bones, and one of which was the size of a grapefruit in his chest. Unfortunately, I know that my mom was not allowed in the room when he had his bone marrow transplant because he would be screaming, and she could not do anything about it. Over the years I have accumulated little bits of information that make up his cancer story. He insisted that the nurses bring an elliptical into his room after the transplant (I suppose that’s the G.G. in him too), and every single day he pulled himself up out of bed and went on it. Even if it was for ten seconds before throwing up, he made himself do it every single day. He put himself in the hands of doctors who believed he would make it, even when 95% did not. Multiple doctors recommended that he record himself reading a book so that his two-year old and newborn would have something to remember him by when he died. Instead, he lived to tell us a thousand stories and create ones of our own. I have the luxury of having very few memories of my dad when I was younger and he had cancer, because I am able to live these every day.
When people talk about cancer, they talk about it as a “battle,” which it certainly is, both for the patient, the family, the friends, and the doctors. But this implies some level of strength associated with winning, and a certain weakness associated with loss. Mindsets do change outcomes, but sometimes mindsets just barely are not enough. My grandmother “lost,” and my dad “won.” Except she didn’t. A loss implies she didn’t do enough, or that the cancer was stronger than she was, when in fact, she fought cancer with the strength of a thousand armies, and it simply did not care. So please, do not ever accidentally award cancer with first place.
Now, my dad is thirteen years cancer free. He recently went to his oncologist for an annual checkout, where he learned that his oncologist is retiring – “always special to outlast your oncologist,” he laughed. A couple years ago he had his port-a-cath taken out from his chest, and he explained that it felt like in an obscure way a piece of him was gone. He described how whenever he was frustrated with the way things were going in life, he would touch his chest and remember how lucky he is just to be alive. With this spirit, he is by far the most positive and happiest person I know – a trait that I hope to just have half of manifest in me. So technically, my cancer story is over; but really, my cancer story is in every step I take and every bowl of coffee ice-cream I eat. I have hope that one day, none of us will have cancer stories.