Cancerville: Population Me
I know, I know, it has been weeks – months even. I don’t even know if I have a good excuse.
Well, I went to India, that’s gotta count for something. And, yes, it was amazing. I just keep thinking, ‘India exists’ and not just in textbooks anymore. I went with A Fresh Chapter along with 11 other survivors, Terri (the founder of A Fresh Chapter) and Hal, the world’s greatest digital story teller. I volunteered at a school that doesn’t have enough money for an actual school structure so we taught in a park. I have 1400 pictures to prove that I was there, friendships that will last a lifetime, and my heart was stolen about seven different times by different children whose different eyes told different stories.
About three weeks before I left for India, I asked Terri if it would be ok if I just told people that I went to India but didn’t actually go because I was scared, shitless. I was afraid for my safety. I was afraid of how the poverty was going to affect me. I was afraid that I was going to teach nothing to the children. I was afraid that I was going to be overwhelmed. And you know what happened? None of it.
I projected this sadness and depression on the people of Delhi before I even met them because I assumed that the importance that we put into ‘stuff’ here whether that means clothes, possessions, cars, money, accessories, etc. was what the people of India would be missing but instead I saw more smiles than I see here. I saw more pride in one person showing me her dirt floor home than I see here. I mean, I think it’s all safe to say that we all know that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and that money can’t buy love/life/experience/personality/insertanythingelsethatyoucan’tbuywithmoneyhere but until you see someone surviving, nay, thriving on $200/month, until you see children sitting, LISTENING, and happy to be at school because to them it’s a privilege not a right, and until you see a woman smile back at you simply because you have taken the time to acknowledge her, it’s difficult to express what that’s like.
I have struggled with the question ‘How was your trip?’. Quite often, I just say ‘Oh, it was great.’ because I don’t know how to formulate my thoughts and experiences into words or into a concise explanation that isn’t going to make someone want to gouge their eyes out.
What I think I can put into words is the feeling of giving. I’ll try to explain. Since the day that I was diagnosed, I became the focus of a lot of people’s lives. Every time I walked into a room, people would stop talking and start asking about me, if I needed anything, about my latest doctor’s appointment and when I was going to grow my boob back. I got quite used to talking about myself and expecting the conversation to be about me (now, I’m not going to lie to you, before cancer I quite enjoyed attention and talking about myself, it’s just that cancer really lit up that spotlight).
Unintentionally, sometimes I think I would make the conversation about me because I just became used to it. And because of this, I lived in a cancer bubble, where it was all cancer, all the time. And, I think I have dreaded the day that someone forgets that I had cancer,that I struggled, that I survived because when that day happens, I will feel like my entire experience will be undermined. If I accept that it's time to move on, I feel like I am contradicting that lesson that I have been trying to teach so many people - 'Cancer doesn't end when treatment does.' I don't feel any less associated with cancer now than when I was in the middle of treatment. The way I keep explaining it is through the loss of a loved one. I have explained many times how cancer is about loss and so when you compare it to the loss of a loved one, it's not like once you bury someone, you get in your car, drive out of the cemetery and say 'Geez, that was a hard week. I'm glad that's over.' It doesn't work like that. And cancer doesn't work like that either. I keep waiting to wake up one day without this cancer-monkey on my back but the little banana eating piece of shit won't leave. Ok, sorry, that may have been a little angry. In saying all of this, something that I did experience in India that I have yet to experience here was that with the children at my placement, I didn’t have time to worry about me and worry if these children remembered that I didn’t have a breast, the focus wasn’t on me, it was on them and it felt wonderful.
Although this was a wonderful feeling, to take a little from what Terri and I have talked about since our return to Canada, I think my problem is that I expected India to not be A Fresh Chapter in my life, but instead be the entire book. I expected to fly to India for two weeks, volunteer, meet new people, and become an entirely enlightened, clear, sorted, healed person. I put the pressure of my post-cancer struggles and (if I can coin a term here for a minute that my cancer peeps may understand) my 'stuckness' on India and so when I came home and I wasn't transformed (Changed? Yes. An entirely different person? No), I felt like I had failed at being a cancer survivor - regardless of how many times I tell other people that there is no right way to do this cancer thing.
This has led to a little soul searching and sometimes I wonder if I stay in my cancer bubble, in Cancerville (population me) because I don’t want anyone to forget that I had CANCER and the thought of not mentioning it within 20 minutes of meeting someone new makes me feel like I am lying to them because I have learned to identify with cancer, it is part of me, and I’m used to it, and I want to teach people about it (for example – the other day someone said to me [after finding out moments before that I had cancer] 'Well, I'm glad you made it.' Huh? I'm glad you made it? Isn't that kind of comparable to 'Hey, I'm glad you didn't die'? Sometimes I am a little sensitive to these things but when I got home, Keith assured me that that wasn't okay to say.).
I mean there's also the obvious angle of 'So, what you're saying is, if you attempt to move on, you won't be able to associate with cancer, and without cancer, who are you?' Yes, I have thought of this. And in a weird way, I think the timing of my cancer has somewhat defined me. I had just graduated for the third time from university and I was trying to find myself, trying to start a career and make a name for myself. I found a job and after 15 months, I was diagnosed with cancer. By the time I went back to work, I was as much a professional cancer patient as I was a professional working girl. At that point, the majority of my career life had been spent in a hospital. So who am I without cancer? I don't really know and to be honest, it frightens me a little to think about it.
How am I supposed to move on from cancer when the physical and emotional effects are at the forefront of my life?