I just learned something truly weird. The day I wrote my last post, according to Facebook, was World Cancer Day. No wonder the weather sucked. No wonder the woman fitting me for new glasses that morning asked me if I was "in remission." (She had access to my medical questionnaire). No wonder I read an essay in the LA Times about the wrong things to say to people with serious illnesses. "Are you in remission?" was not on that list, but having been asked the question numerous times, I'd say it's on my list of questions not to ask people who've gone through cancer treatment. First off, what motivates a person asking this question? And what if the answer is "No?" How would a stranger or casual acquaintance react? "No, it's not in remission. As a matter of fact, I'm dying of cancer. Now can I please try on these cool frames?"
My oncologist never uttered the word "remission" in all of our conversations. The only time he uttered a variant of the word "cure," (as in, "when we use chemotherapy with curative intent") I asked him to repeat what he'd said. He looked at me, surprised. "Of course that's what we're doing," he said. I burst into tears. Going through treatment I barely looked ahead more than a day. "Just tell me what to do and I'll do it" was my unarticulated motto as I put my head down and bore my way forward, like a Clydesdale yoked to a massive pile of logs. Because most oncologists don't use the word "cure." I never heard the word "prognosis" used by a doctor either, but near-strangers have asked asked me for mine. What do I tell them? What happens to breast cancer's tiniest traces after treatment has had its way is anyone's guess. Perhaps (and how we pray) the onslaught destroyed every last mutant cell. Perhaps dormant cells remain, asleep, never to awaken (a second best outcome). Perhaps they lodge in the lung, in a bone, and incubate. There's no test to tell you either way. The oncologist says, "If you feel healthy, then likely you are." The numbers you read, the survival statistics, lump every type of breast cancer together, and reflect the data for five years post-diagnosis. "You have to learn to live with uncertainty," the doctors and social workers tell you.
So when a person asks about prognosis, or remission, what happens to the person who's had breast cancer is a drop. The way a raft drops down a lip into a big rapid. You find yourself in a recirculating hole, which roils with all you don't know about "your" cancer. When a person asks those things, uncertainty rears up like a standing wave. You have choices. Is it an opportunity to educate the person about breast cancer biology? To draw a boundary? To ask the questioner to question her own intentions? My counselor suggested I respond this way: "Why are you asking me that?"
When I sat down in front of the counter with the round mirror in its silver frame, the glasses frames I'd picked out arranged front of me, and a woman I'd just met asked, suddenly: "Are you in remission?" the ordinary act of picking out new glasses pretty much shattered in my lap. I was back in Cancerland.
The intentions behind World Cancer Day and the question "Are you in remission" are caring, not ill-willed. Still, both things rub me the wrong way. But it's kind of fun to imagine a World Cancer Day parade. With bagpipes. And baton-twirlers. And ginger candies and wigs flung from various cancer floats, the pancreatic, the lung, the blood, the breast.
When I told Craig about the woman at the eye doctor's, he suggested this rejoinder: "Do you know how much time you've got left?" Sometimes, I feel terribly isolated with my fears. Today, in a car with five others, I thought to myself: "I'm the only one here who's had cancer." I allowed myself to indulge in a little "why me"-ing. This morning too, taking a run, I stopped in a little park, sat down, and had myself a self-pity party. I struggle mightily with fear, and it comes in spasms. Long respites -- months even -- of calm are interrupted my a few weeks of devil possession. "Cancer wrecked my life," I thought, sitting there, hunched on the park bench. "I'm not cut out to be a cancer survivor. I can't do it." I thought of what a guy at the Homer airport said to Craig when he was about to fly out to Boston three years ago to help me get through surgery. The guy's wife had had cancer. He told Craig the key was positive attitude. "I suck at positive thinking," I snuffled. And then I jogged back home and took a shower. Later, I ate dim sum with those five people who'd been in the car with me, those five non-cancer survivors. But it's a fact that none of us sitting around that round table in the Chinese restaurant, stabbing fried turnip cakes and jellyfish with our chopsticks -- and none of you -- knows how much time we have left. If we're born into this life, the prognosis is not good.
There are other ways to look at the word remission. In physics, it is the scattering of light by a material. The Latin remissionem is "relaxation, a sending back." Remittere is to "slacken, let go, abate." How I want, in those moments of intense fear, to slacken, relax, to send it back. When a person has had cancer, a stranger meeting her eye is perhaps is in the path of scattering light. Are you in remission? Because I, too, am alive here on earth, and thus, afraid. None of us is alone in this. We are all light, scattering, as we reach our chopsticks for another curl of squid.