By Christopher Cudworth
This it the 300th post on We Run and Ride. Thank you for your readership.
As one who has never been afraid to write about cancer and the effects it has had on our family with the loss of my mother to pancreatic and my wife to ovarian cancer, it might seem counterintuitive to proclaim that Cancer Rocks. And you might wonder how it relates to running and riding. But hang tight, and we’ll explore that together…
No, You Rock!
We use the term “You Rock!” to describe so many things.
Win a volleyball tournament? You Rock!
Nail your cello solo? You Rock!
Finish a marathon, a half marathon or a triathlon? You definitely rock…
Earn that promotion at work? You Rock! You Rock! You Rock!
But such enthusiasm can be deceptive. Our proclamations really are sort of a dismissal, if you think about them in any depth. The term “You Rock!” is often shorthand for “Don’t tell me any more! I’ve just given you the ultimate compliment.”
And what is that? You Rock.
Which eclipses all other conversation about the subject.
A partial eclipse
Cancer Rocks in a different way than that because after all, most people would say cancer does not rock, Cancer Sucks.
Cancer makes people sick and kills them. And that does sort of “suck” whatever that means, because there’s not really much we can do about cancer even though we’ve spent billions developing research and treatments that cure some people but leaves others to rot away and die. It’s harsh and it sucks, if you insist on colloquializing it.
Our shallowness in saying Cancer Sucks is about as meaningful as uttering the phrase Cancer Rocks. Those bookends don’t begin to tell the full tale of courage shown by people trying to live their best through nearly barbaric treatments. What it comes down to is this: the people seeking to help those stricken with cancer are pretty much at a loss for words. So we lean on words like “Cancer Sucks” to get us through the awkwardness of not knowing what the hell else to say.
It’s the tarsnake of conversation about cancer.
So you have to shake up the formula to get past the Cancer Sucks and Cancer Rocks levels of consideration to reach something substantive about the subject of cancer.
Having served as direct caregiver to two loved ones who died from the disease, and having witnessed their determined hope right up until the end, I base my observations on an intimate but limited experience with cancer as a condition.
I got to know enough other people with cancer in waiting rooms to reveal a truth behind it all. Cancer is its own reality.
Dealing with that reality is the part we find hardest to grasp.
We essentially lost a hero in that regard with the downfall of one Lance Armstrong, who failed the image he’d built up and the example he’d set when it was revealed that he was doing a bit of cheating all those years he won the Tour de France.
His Livestrong Foundation remains an inspiration to many apart from his apparent disgrace as a doped up cyclist. He’s the ultimate poster child for the opposing worlds of Cancer Sucks and Cancer Rocks. He’s essentially shown us how tough it is to draw a clean, clear line of demarcation between the bookends of treatment and success. There is tremendous value in that if we are willing to grasp it.
Lance claimed that cancer changed him in significant ways. His motivation to ride (and to live) after cancer pulled him through. Only during the absolute depths of chemo did he lose some degree of hope. When you’re just trying to survive, climbing to the top of a mountain you might say, the vision of hope is just as important as the prognosis. I know that for sure, because I’ve seen it firsthand.
Perhaps Armstrong might never have reached the heights he did without the depths of cancer to scratch free the bonds of anger hemming in his soul. We will never know the answer to that question, just as we will likely never know how much his doping actually helped him win 7 times at the Tour de France. It is impossible to separate the effort he put out from the drugs he put in.
You could say the same of many people in cancer treatment. How do you separate or categorize the courage of one person who survives cancer treatment with the effort of another who succumbs? Every circumstance is different. To claim that one person was braver than another is passing a complex and dismissive brand of judgment. And that’s ugly territory.
Cancer isn’t just one thing, anyway. It is a disease of many forms even within one person.
My mother started treatment for lymphoma over a year before she learned of the fatal pancreatic cancer beneath it all. The chemo she took to combat the disease caused a stroke. And she died. Cancer didn’t kill her. But it did rock her world in a bad way.
My wife began treatment for ovarian cancer in 2005. She took everything they threw at her to put it into remission. 11 grueling chemo treatments. Surgeries. And it came back. We hit it again with a regimen just as strong. And it came back. It came back again and again and again. It rocked her world in all the wrong ways. Finally it showed up in her brain, and the doctor’s said, “Hmmm. It’s not supposed to do that.”
Tending the rock garden
All she wanted to do was live without cancer as the foundation of her existence. So she gardened and taught preschool and loved her family.
Maybe that sounds familiar to you? Perhaps you know someone else with cancer and a similar story. You might have lost them to eternity as well. And what do we make of that?
As a caregiver I can only tell you my personal experience, and what it now means to me.
I feel like I crawled out from underneath a rock after 8 long years of worry and strain. I could feel guilt for feeling better or I could be grateful that we survived as long as we did. Cancer rocked us this way and that. It rocked our finances. Rocked my employment. Rocked our family and friends. Rocked our marriage, but we held strong in faith and fidelity.
Yes, Cancer Rocks all right. It rocks you in ways that equate to throwing someone under a bus or in front of a train. You might not get hurt at all. Or you could get destroyed.
My perhaps naive take is that our blessings were indeed fulfilled while she lived. We had help. We made the best of it. When it is all said and done, however, one must move on. There is no other choice.
You must simultaneously acknowledge that cancer changes you in ways that perhaps nothing else can. Is it ironic or inevitable that some of those changes turn out to be for the better?
Originally bitter people can come to appreciate life through their experiences with cancer. Faithless people might find God, if that’s their bent. Lives are changed. Cancer rocks that way too. It goes both directions.
We just don’t like to think that much about the fact that it might have positive effects on us.
Gun to our heads
It’s like that character in the Flannery O’Connor story, a grandmother who bitches her way through life until she witnesses her entire family slain before her by feckless thieves on rural backroads.
With a gun held in her face she repents and speaks kindnesses to the murderous men. They pull the trigger anyway. One turns to the other and says (in paraphrase): “She would have been a good woman with a gun to her head her whole life.”
It’s that way with cancer. It’s the gun to our collective heads. We can either be better people for it or we can let it consume us entirely.
Like the old woman spitting invectives through the veil of her bitterness, the ugliness of cancer is ultimately shallow. We all die sooner or later. Life is a pre-existing condition, and nature doesn’t view it as all that precious.
So Cancer Rocks, in that it reveals strange truths about life.
Of course Cancer Sucks for the same reason.
It’s what you choose to make of that apparent dichotomy that matters. We run and ride to sort out the difference, and to make a difference where we can.