Living With Cancer

Thursday, 03 Feb 2011 08:51 AM

By Susan Estrich

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I was talking to a friend who was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma — a young guy (by my lights), in his early 40s, if that; a jock, former varsity athlete, devoted husband and father. By all logic, of the three of us standing around talking, he should have been the most vital, the youngest, strongest, and healthiest.

I said all the things you say in such situations: My sister had it almost 30 years ago, and she did fine; if you have to get a cancer, this one is better than most; all the stuff about cure rates, and the new drugs that don't make you nearly as sick as my sister was in her day. I remembered my friend Kath calling me after her initial biopsy showed cancer cells and saying, "Pray lymphoma." I told that part of the story.

My friend took it all in and said all the things you say: that he was grateful that it was caught at an early stage, that the doctors, nurses, and technicians at City of Hope are phenomenal, that the treatments are not nearly as bad as he feared. We joked about shaving his head.

And then he said that's all true, but when you think about the 10 people who have what you have standing in a line and know that one of you will not be cured and will die . . .

It's not a lineup any of us would want to be in.

But then, aren't we all, whether we know it or not?

Kath didn't have lymphoma, after all. She had thymic carcinoma and was gone in two months. Even now, seven months later, I find it hard to believe and accept. She took care of herself. She got all her tests. We were supposed to sit together on the porch in our old age.

What happened to the connection between cause and fact? Why her and not all those people who drink too much and take drugs and never exercise? Why does my young friend have cancer instead of all those smokers and sitters out there?

There is no answer, as anyone who has faced loss knows. (And who hasn't?) Even asking the question gets you nowhere. There is no explanation when cause and effect are disconnected, which is why it is so terrifying.

I prayed for lymphoma, and it wasn't that. I prayed that she could survive anyway, and she didn't. I prayed that she would not face terrible pain, and she did. None of my prayers were "answered," in that cause and effect sense, and yet I keep praying.

I pray for my cousin with lung cancer and my friend with lymphoma. I pray for Rosie, who helped me raise my children and who had lung cancer two years ago. I pray for my sister, who was diagnosed with breast cancer decades after the lymphoma. I pray for my brother and his damaged heart, and for my children and my nephews.

I pray to fill the gap between cause and effect. I pray for the strength to get up every day knowing that all of us, and all of those we love, forever live in that lineup my friend so fears, whether we know it or not.


© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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