Today I had lunch with a relative who is a few years younger than me. She is recovering from an emergency surgery brought on by ovarian cancer.
The cancer had gone undetected until it placed her life in immediate peril. One day she was working in the corporate headquarters of a bank. The next day she was undergoing an emergency hysterectomy.
My relative is recovering nicely, but she will have to take chemotherapy treatments later this month, to make sure that the surgeons removed all of the cancer.
Cancer, as most readers will know, has a way of insidiously spreading. That’s why it’s a perfect metaphor for so many bad things that don’t stay in one place.
I’ve lost a number of loved ones to cancer: a grandmother, an uncle, a cousin, a cousin-in-law.
I’m sure you’ve lost loved ones to cancer, too. Cancer is the leading cause of death on the planet—or so the Internet tells me.
You are most vulnerable to cancer if you smoke cigarettes, or drink alcohol, or were exposed to asbestos or other hazardous chemicals. Obesity is a factor in certain cancers (especially liver cancer).
But cancer can strike anyone, at any time. Steve Jobs was fanatical about his health. Jobs subjected himself to ridiculous juice diets to cleanse his body of toxins. That didn’t protect him from the pancreatic cancer that took his life at the age of fifty-six.
Youth is no bulwark against cancer, either—as it generally is for conditions like heart disease. Young people are diagnosed with cancer every day.
I’ll never forget the courageous final battle of Lauren Hill, an Indiana college basketball player who succumbed to brain cancer in 2015. She was only nineteen. Lauren Hill was a lot more accepting of her fate, at such a young age, than I would have been in her position. She spent her final weeks raising money for cancer research, so that others might be saved. (She knew by that time that it was too late for her.)
Lauren Hill, if you’ve read about her, was truly a noble soul, one of the best examples of humanity that I’ve seen—especially among the Millennial generation.
Better than me, I will readily admit.
There are many famous, otherwise healthy people who cancer took before their time: Patrick Swayze, Michael Landon, Vince Flynn….just to name a few.
Healthwise, cancer is the only thing that frightens me on a personal level. I have a resting pulse of sixty. I have a near-perfect diet. I work out every day. I’m never going to need a heart surgeon.
I’m not worried about arteriosclerosis, either. It just isn’t going to happen, with my lifestyle. Not before the age of ninety.
In my work as a writer, I don’t expose myself to many physical dangers. I don’t drive much. I don’t get into bar fights. I don’t do extreme sports.
While I could die a violent death…I think the odds are against it.
But I’m as vulnerable to cancer as anyone else. And there are so many forms of cancer, I can’t even begin to worry about all of them—let alone take measures to protect myself.
Not only is the reality of cancer terrifying, but so is the very idea of it.
It is one thing to know that our bodies are vulnerable to various forms of violence…to germs, viruses, and other pathogens. It’s another thing to know that our bodies can turn against themselves—and us, in the process. (If you can’t trust your own body, then what, in this world, can you possibly trust?)
I was raised Roman Catholic; and I was taught that willful suicide is a sin. But what about involuntary suicide? Cancer is the body’s attempt to commit suicide for us, even if we want no part of the act. The body, being ungoverned any moral restraints, is free to commit one of the ultimate mortal sins.
That’s not a medical definition, of course; but it is an observable one. My loved ones who died of cancer—not one of them wanted to die. They were helpless and frustrated, as their bodies engaged in an aggressive process of self-destruction.
In his 2011 book on the subject, physician/author Siddhartha Mukherjee called cancer “the emperor of all maladies”.
That’s not a very scientific description, either. But who can argue with it?