Cancer brings gifts. Opportunities. Stardom, even.
I’ve been seriously ill before–almost died several times–and nobody much cared except one doctor and a couple of woo-woo practitioners. Even my husband didn’t bother to come to the hospital until Day 5. At the time, such cool dismissal of life-obstructing symptoms seemed the result of my own inadequacies, my unimportance–perhaps my gender. I must be a bad or unpleasant person–a lesser person–I couldn’t help thinking. The diagnosis of a permanent, long-term illness turned people off. Like many chronically ill persons, I felt abandoned, left to take my stroll through the valley of the shadow alone.
I’d been diagnosed with FMS, you see. Fibromyalgia, a name that means just "pain in the tissues", nothing more. The loser’s disorder–not even a real disease in the eyes of much of the allopathic medical world.
FMSsies, as I came to call us patients, are anything but sexy. We’re just a pain in the unmentionables.The trouble with fibromyalgia, I used to quip from the prison of pain that a bouquet of the sixty-some symptoms had tied me down in, is that the damned thing refuses to kill you. Today, an obit reporting a person died of FMS would still be greeted with guffaws and bad jokes about how the patient had finally hit on a symptom to believe in.
Lady C is different. If FMS is a trollop and a welfare bum, Lady C has the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. She’s a diva with a touch of the aristocrat. Cancer has allure on the research stage and in the fund-raising theater, in ways that dowdy FMS can never emulate. Where cancer’s initial symptoms are invisible, the shock of the diagnosis in the face of the patient’s apparent health adds an air of mystery to the malady. Our curiosity puts on the jacket of empathy or coat of sympathy and snap! just like that, we’re walking in the patient’s shoes, onstage in the star’s most important scene as the tale unfolds.
When, on the other hand, was the last time you or I empathised with a chronic-illness patient? They are so boring! Altijd ziek maar nooit dood. That’s what the Dutch say about those people who never go anywhere with their interminable disease but just sit there and wallow in the same old symptoms: "Always sick but never dead." Oh, please. Get on with your story. The nicer among us bite our tongues.
Cancer entertains us. The specter of death promises a denouement to the story. Watching cancer patients deteriorate is akin to signing up for an interactive vampire tale. Come on–admit it! Terminal illness is a page-turner; chronic illness is a snore. Writers, don’t assign your protagonist a chronic illness–it’s not sexy. Schadenfreude, however, is alive and well in everybody.
The mere mention of the Big C seems to shave twenty pounds off my ample form. The most common response to my news of cancer has been, I was thinking you’ve lost weight. This is usually followed by a remark on the fullness of my hair, as if it has been doing a heroic job of staying on my head since the words of my diagnosis were spoken. The truth? I’ve lost ten pounds by dint of incredible effort, and my hair is the same thick, wild, disorganised comet-tail it has been for six decades. Yet the power of the C word is so great that it puts me instantly onstage: people’s faces look just like a front-row audience from downstage center, expectant, focused, ready for the quip or the monologue sure to fall from my lips.
The show must go on, you learn from theater. Disappointing your public is the worst of sins. Go ahead: don the costume of the comedian; get out the half-wasted tubes of stage make-up. All that jazz helps keep you standing. Performing. Working your life, whatever’s left of it.
There’s star power in cancer, all right. Why? Because none of us believes there’s a cure? Oh my God–it’s CANCER…! Start carving the headstone. What kind of music would you prefer at your funeral, by the way?
Lady C flicks the decimal point in one’s social-capital account to the right one or two places, and she has the power to mobilise the energy of the community to help the star patient stand up and perform to curtain call. But she brings more valuable and personal gifts, too, a gift waiting for you in the mirrored dressing room, where you sit amidst sweat-stained costumes and weary fellow members of your troupe, pushing aside congratulatory bouquets. You watch your pallid face emerge as you scrape off the makeup. With every wad of cotton you use up, you edge a little closer to the mirror, a little closer to contemplating death, the hour that haunted face of yours will no longer be able to cast an image into the glass at all, makeup art or no.
Vancouver actress Babz Chula, who left the mirror with Lady C at age 64 last month, treasured death’s enhancement of her life. "That’s a blessing and a gift, to be able to value your life because you thought about death. In contemplating death, my life has such great value. It’s what you get from living with cancer, and that’s rich stuff."
Cancer hangs a star on your dressing-room door. However the last act plays out, you are the star of your show. No, no, they can’t take that away from you. Carry on. You have the gift.