So Much Friggin’ Cancer!

22 Oct



Years ago, when my parents wanted to try and scare me into losing weight, they would tell me that our fat relatives died of heart disease.  My paternal grandfather, a few cousins, etc.  Over time, though, I’ve come to see that cancer, not heart disease, is the most common ailment in my family, and frankly my world.  As Jerry Lee Lewis might say, there’s a “whole lot of cancer going on” in my family.  My mom has had cancer, her sister, her mother, an uncle, and at least two cousins.  That’s a whole mess of cancer, and that’s just off the top of my head!  On my dad’s side….well we lost him and his mother to cancer. His sister impressively survived leukemia.  And once again, I haven’t really dug deep into the family tree to see how far down the cancer root burrows.

In my work world, I am surrounded by cancer patients and cancer survivors, wonderful women and men who have drawn on incredible strength either to defeat the disease or keep it at bay (no, I do not work in health care). In truth, I had no idea just how many cancer survivors I worked with until I came out of the lymphoma closet, so to speak.  Soon people whom I have always known as perfectly healthy, fit individuals who faced nary a bump in the road had shared their stories of cancer combat and victory.  They have quickly become my inspiration, and I assume I will pester them with all kinds of questions as I continue down this path.

I am not sure what to make of all this cancer.  Certainly I feel a little less afraid about heart disease.  And thanks to all of these wonderful survivors in my life I do have this comfortable sense that cancer is something you can treat and defeat.  Still, I wonder what it is about the world we live in that results in so much cancer. I mean, we are not talking about identical types of people here.  Cancer seems to have indiscriminately attacked a range of people in my life—men, women, fit people, couch potatoes, smokers, health nuts, New Yorkers, Angelenos, Jews, Italians, Native Americans, Wasps, old people, young people, I even have a friend whose son was born with cancer.  Born with cancer?  WTF?

Naturally I want to make sense of all of this, to construct a narrative that explains the preponderance of cancer in my world and clarifies my own experience with the disease.  Surely there is a message here, yes?  We eat too much meat, watch too much TV, it’s pasteurized milk, or wine, or non-organic vegetables, or pre-marital sex, or my wasted years in show business, or some such thing.  Or maybe it’s God trying to speak to me.  I realize, though, that this is all self-indulgent nonsense.  There is a randomness to reality that defies reason and narrative and above all has nothing to do with me. I know that this sentiment is anathema to historians, whose raison d’etre is to impose a narrative explanation on all things, and as an historian, I want it all to make sense, but it simply doesn’t. 

And that, I think is the scariest thing about all this damn cancer.  It seems to come out of nowhere, and affects people for practically no reason at all.  It lurks in the dark like a mugger or a murderer, waiting to catch us unawares and take our money, sanity, and possibly our lives.  So we try our best to defend against it.  We eat better, exercise, maybe learn Karate or Krav Maga to kick cancer’s ass.  Too often though, cancer doesn’t give a shit.  As Joe Jackson reminds us, “Everything gives you cancer.  Sadly, though, a very limited number of things cure it.  Let’s hope I find at least one for me and every other person I know with cancer finds one too.   Because I am really over all this friggin’ cancer.


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