Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I don't often write about books, which is odd given that I read constantly, as in "all the time." I tend to see my reading as a broad river in which I am floating, enjoying the sunshine on the water and the sound of the ripples. Sometimes I am lazing around in the water, sometimes I am on an old inner tube letting the current tug me gently downstream, but I am always in the river when I read.
I love that river. I have floated on that river for a half century.
Sometimes, though, a book comes along that narrows the river channel, driving the water through a rock walled canyon. The water sweeps along and there is a rush of whitewater. During those times, I hold tight to the book, knowing I will emerge back into the sunlight and lazy current when I am done.
I just finished reading one such book, The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Subtitled A Biography of Cancer, the book is exactly that. Written for laypeople as well as for doctors, it takes the reader from the earliest indications of cancer in the human record up to 2010 and where we are now in the treatment of cancer.
Mukherjee makes clear, with no mincing of words, that we are nowhere near "conquering" cancer. The reality is humans will likely never "conquer" cancer in the sense of eradicating the disease. Certain types of cancer are now highly treatable and indeed curable. Cures for others are within reach. But cancer as such will always be with (and in) us. In speaking about the climbing cancer rates in certain cancers or in certain countries, the author notes that at the point that cancer is affecting one in three or one in two people, "the question then will not be if we will encounter the immortal illness in our lifetime, but when." (Author's emphasis.)
I finished the book last night after an intense several days of reading. When I set it down with a thud (the book is not small), Warren asked me if I were "okay."
How would I know, so soon? I was just climbing out of the water after a wild rush through the narrow channel. I needed to stand on the shore, towel off, get into some dry clothes.
This book resonated deeply with me, citizen of Cancerland that I am. (I was delighted to see Mukherjee use that term one time in the book.) But, as I noted, this is not a gentle read or a soft sell about cancer. Mukherjee reminded me bluntly on page 444 that not only do I live in Cancerland, but I will never leave it. Nothing "cures myeloma outright; myeloma is still a fatal disease."
This morning Warren called me after he left the house to mention a possible demolition in the downtown area. I emailed him in response: This is going to sound like a weird comment, but after reading the cancer book, I feel more detached. I hate to see the house come down. On the other hand, I'm in this "long view" frame of mind right now. I think the cancer book just reminded me of how much is guesswork with cancer and how much my still being alive is due to unusually good fortune. I am vastly blessed that my myeloma has stayed quiet for so long (unusually long, truth be known).
Warren replied in his usual thoughtful way: I know things are in the back of your mind. I try not to disturb them in you because they are yours. (What a gentle, loving husband I have.)
Mukherjee writes about the impact of his medical rotation in oncology on him and his colleagues: "our encounter with cancer has rounded us off; it has smoothed and polished us like river rocks." Like Mukherjee's experience in his oncology rotation, I too have been shaped by living with cancer.
In copying that quote into my commonplace book, I without thinking substituted "stones" for "rocks" before catching my mistake. Stones are smaller than rocks, smoother, rounder. They can be held in the hand. Since getting cancer, I have collected many stones along the way: stones of memories, stones of experiences, stones of feelings.
Those stones are mine.
When I read Warren's beautiful line, I saw myself at the river again, picking up small stones, each of them rounded by the cancer. They are my stones. Warren and others can look at them, hold them, marvel at them, but they remain my stones. Sooner or later, whoever is looking at them has to hand them back to me.
One of those stone is gratitude. Another is uncertainty. One is love. One of those stones is hope. Yet another is purpose. One, polished particularly smooth, is death.
Yes, death is one of my stones too.
Cancer has shaped and rounded who I am and what my life is. Reading The Emperor of All Maladies reminded me anew of what a gift I have been given. I am still here. This morning, as I walked Warren out to the car, I bent down to pluck a stray weed (one of many) from the front flower bed. My head was near a clump of spiderwort, which the honeybees have been plumbing for weeks now, and I heard the sharp buzz of one of them in the clump of flowers. I straightened up and looked until I spotted the bee furiously working over a stamen.
So full of life, so full of purpose.
I am still here. It is up to me to decide what to do with those stones every day of the rest of my life.