the three of us with our surgeries
and remissions: Mother’s head bare,
sister’s uterus gone, and I with only
one breast. Picture us: the American Women Gothic
posed on our porch. The pitchfork in our missing parts...
Poet Bonnie Maurer creates this portrait of a family, three women, living with cancer in the opening stanza of her poem, “It Seems We can Live with Cancer Now” (in The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin Miller, Ed.). Even though they are “clear,” or in remission, the possibility of recurrence stays with them:
During quiet conversation, when the lamp shorts out,
We will show no surprise, really…
What cancer is farming us?”
“We will show no surprise, really…” Whether we call ourselves patients, survivors, recovered or in remission we live with cancer. I live with cancer, but I recalled how, years ago, my oncologist pronounced me “cured” after my regiment of radiation and tamoxifen. Was I really cured? This past week I asked a psychologist at a local cancer center what people are told once they’ve successfully completed treatment: “In remission?’ Healed?” ‘Cured?”
“We use the phrase, ‘no evidence of disease at this time,’” he said. I wrote down the words, ‘no evidence of disease at this time.” I admit that I don’t think of the alternative to “at this time,” but I know that I share that question with other cancer survivors, the persistent shadow lurking in the wings, the one that makes an appearance during every medical procedure— mammogram, colonoscopy, CT scan or even those routine follow-ups with surgeons or oncologists. “What cancer might still be farming me?”
Is that what it means to live with cancer? With the possibility of recurrence never disappearing, whether we’re actively undergoing treatment or not; even when we’re given another reprieve in our annual checkup? We live with that nagging shadow, yes, but we also must live with hope. Hope that cures will be found; hope for our friends facing surgery, radiation or chemotherapy; hope our lives will not be cut short. Hope is what keeps us going.
Maurer’s family of women live with cancer, but like us, they also cling to hope:
As scientists listen for signals from alien worlds,
we tune our keen ears to stories of others who have lived
clear for twenty years.
What does it mean to you to live with cancer? Write about it.