In the movie 50/50, there’s a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character considers his 50 percent chance of dying from cancer and realizes there’s a lot he hasn’t done in his life, like visit Canada. Although the movie about my experience with cancer would be more optimistically titled 89/11 (or would that be 11/89?), I got to thinking about the things I still haven’t done, and what I should be doing with the time I have left.
It’s true that all of my doctors expect that I will live many years in good health. But getting cancer once, at such a young age, greatly increases my chances of getting cancer again — I’d be deceiving myself if I thought otherwise. We all have potential cancer cells growing in our bodies, and for most of us, they never coalesce into a tumor. But my potential cancer cells have already proven themselves to be highly motivated. Funny how the only overachieving cells in my body are the bad ones.
In the first few months after my diagnosis, it felt like every day I discovered some new way in which my life had permanently changed. I remember the day I learned that my hopes of becoming a mother would have to be deferred until my mid-thirties. I remember seeing my mastectomy scars for the first time and understanding that I couldn’t breast-feed my eventual children. Having my lymph nodes removed meant that hot yoga and jacuzzis were off-limits forever. In fact, it only just recently occurred to me that my cancer scars make me ineligible for any kind of occupation involving being naked — exotic dancer, porn star, Victoria’s Secret model, Lindsay Lohan. Not that I wanted to be any of those things to begin with, but now I definitely can’t.
But I also try to see my cancer diagnosis as a door opening. My worst nightmare came true and it was awful, but life went on. I’m fine, I’ll probably continue to be fine, and what in the world do I have to be afraid of now? In a way, getting cancer was the most liberating experience of my life.
Yes, I have nasty scars on areas of my body that are supposed to be beautiful. On the plus side, it feels pretty pointless to worry about how the rest of my body looks now. Moreover, I have a newfound appreciation for this body, because it is the thing that moves me through life. It’s my conduit to pleasure. It’s my vehicle for connecting with the world and the people around me. This body is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and it is pretty incredible.
Facing the prospect of my own untimely death also made me realize how futile it is to be afraid — of anything. Before I got cancer, I worried constantly. I worried that my food was undercooked and I’d get E. coli and die. I worried that an earthquake would hit in the middle of the night and I’d be crushed. I worried about car accidents, and terrorist attacks, and my slow-cooker catching fire. But then that day came, when some stranger told me over the phone that I might die, and soon, and suddenly worrying about slow-cooker fires seemed a bit silly.
We are all going to die. Some of us will die of cancer, and some of us will surely die in slow-cooker fires. There’s no point in worrying about all the different things that can kill us because Death will find a way around all of our carefully crafted defenses. So I decided to let go of my worries as much as possible. I’m still working on this, a year post-diagnosis, and it’s not easy. But I know I’d rather spend my very finite and limited time doing other things.
Which brings me back my original question — the only question, really, in life: knowing that I have a limited amount of time to live, and having decided not to spend that time critiquing my own body or worrying about how I’m going to die… what do I want to do instead?
I think this is the part of the essay where I’m supposed to rattle off all the things I intend to do with my life. Visit India, run a marathon, write a book, and yeah, those are a few things I want to do. But another thing I’ve learned is that the things I really want to do in my life are much simpler, and yet more difficult to articulate.
Today I walked home from work. It’s about a 2-mile walk, mostly uphill, but it was a gorgeous near-spring day in Seattle. The sun was going down over the sound and the mountains, making a dazzling pink sunset. It was cold but not too cold. The day was slipping away at a leisurely pace. Normally I’m in a rush to get home to my dinner, but today I took a different route, a longer route, and I didn’t hurry. I stopped to explore a fancy market I’d never been in before. I discovered a cute bar tucked away in a side street. I popped into a restaurant I’d heard of but never tried and ordered food I wouldn’t normally have eaten.
I know this sounds like a total cliché and before I got cancer I would have rolled my eyes at this, but by slowing down and taking a different route, I understood that every day of my life could be like this — a veritable buffet of new experiences.
Do I want to go to India? I don’t know. Sure. Run a marathon? Write a book? I suppose I do. I guess I just don’t feel it’s that important to make a list of all the things I want to accomplish, and then set about checking them off, one by one. I am certain that I want to say yes more. I don’t want to hide out in my apartment watching The Office all night, every night, even though I love that show. I want to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. I want to ask myself questions and live my way to the answers. I want to speak up for myself, and I want to be kind to myself.
I thought 50/50 felt dishonest in a lot of ways — in the movie, the guy unemotionally receives the news that he has cancer. His mom cries though he never does. He has some setbacks that aren’t really explored, and in the end, he has surgery and the whole thing ends on a hopeful note. Based on my own experience, it didn’t adequately portray the sheer terror of getting cancer at 27, the feeling of having the next 50 years languidly spread out before you one moment and cruelly snatched away the next. And I didn’t feel that it elaborated enough on the journey from terror to enlightenment that many cancer patients, including myself, go through. But I liked 50/50 because it’s not like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character got cancer, had an epiphany, and finally visited Canada like he always meant to. Life isn’t really like that. Life is beautiful and strange and over too soon, and life doesn’t lend itself to check boxes. Fuck your bucket list. Just get out of your house, and say “yes.”
Illustration by Rebecca Elves