I reached the point one day recently where I wondered why I had cancer. Not in a self-pitying, Why me? kind of way, though there’s nothing wrong with asking that, but as more of an ontological question: a question of being. I don’t see myself as someone who gets cancer, who has cancer. Of course, every person who has cancer must feel the same way. The category of people-who-don’t-belong-in-the-cancer-category is singular: me. I don’t get cancer. And yet I did.
Perhaps all serious diagnoses are like this. Thank goodness I’ve never had another one to compare. Maybe all bad health news comes with a feeling of, how can this be happening to me? Maybe even all bad news in general.
For me, though, the cancer diagnosis feels personal. Because I’ve worked in oncology, written about oncology, given oncology patients chemo, held patients’ hands after they got bad news, cheered them when they went home healthy, and worked to keep them comfortable as they died, I felt like I knew cancer: who it likes, who it doesn’t, where and when it may strike.
But cancer has no likes or dislikes, no preferences for place or timing. Cancer simply is: aberrant cell growth resulting from mistakes in gene transcription. Cancer means that something went wrong, not just at the cellular level, though that’s where it is malevolently acted out, but at the chemical level. It’s no more personal than yeast making bread rise, or bleach killing harmful bacteria.
I remember a patient with cancer who had a fair amount of cancer in his family. He asked me one day, tentatively, why that might be. Bad luck, I told him, because ultimately, that’s what it comes down to.
And then I think about all the amazing things in my life—my three healthy kids, my supportive husband, that I get paid to write, my work as a nurse—and I realize that’s the same genetics at work, in some ways the same kind of luck even. The Medical Director of the hospice where I work told me we all get the hand we’re dealt, and the wisdom of that expression is just beginning to sink in. Cancer sucks, but overall life has given me a good hand. I have cancer and I have my life, and whatever cancer can and will do to my body, it cannot erase what already is my life.