Print Edition - 2014-09-25  |  Health and Living

Living with cancer: Making room

  • Susan Gubar writes about life with ovarian cancer
Living with cancer: Making room

Sep 24, 2014-

When I started clearing my closet a few weeks after the 18th chemo infusion, I struggled against bitterness about my changed body. After all, someone else could wear the clothes that no longer fit me. Then why not bundle them up, along with jackets, shirts, pants and shoes unworn because they were a professional uniform no longer needed?

Previously and sorrowfully, I had boxed all the files in my campus office and sent them to the university archive, providing a place with my departure for a younger colleague. The fading signs my daughters had drawn some 30 years ago—“Mom at Work”—were taken down and brought home. Months later, I realised that whenever I went into the bathroom, I would find myself tossing hair and bath products. The aftereffects of chemotherapy and of the grotesque debulking operation that eviscerates ovarian cancer patients put an end to hair and baths.

The next year, I went through my stash of cotton fabric with my friend Dyan, gave her a large plastic bag, and urged her to take whatever she could use for future quilts. Why should I hoard fabric that I will not have time to cut and stitch? No amount of cajoling convinced her that she might become a knitter and should also pack up lovely wool that I would never have the energy to use.

Project Divest only emerged in capital letters after I read the harrowing but hilarious graphic elegy composed by the cartoonist Roz Chast. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast recounts and illustrates her successful efforts to pry her aged parents from the apartment they inhabited for more than four decades, relocate them in “The Place,” and then return to clean up their horrific clutter.

Before my incapacitation and death, shouldn’t I unburden my family of the mounds of useless debris I had accumulated over a lifetime? Fueled by “a blast from Chast,” I assumed a righteous air.

With my husband’s help, I went through a succession of closets full of crumbling letters and journals, dusty VHS tapes, grungy pocketbooks, elegant but heavy leather luggage from his first wife, tattered posters, plastic green Hulk hands (with no batteries), caked running shoes, dysfunctional humidifiers and fans, tax records from the last century, and crocheted afghans from my mother.

During breaks, when I returned to the cancer memoirs that have absorbed me since diagnosis, I was surprised to discover that the act of purging preoccupies younger women who deem cancer “just another chapter” in their “book of life,” as Dr Janet R. Gilsdorf does in Inside/Outside: A Physician’s Journey With Cancer.

Dr Gilsdorf ends her book with a description of ruthlessly discarding possessions that “no longer represent security against an unexpected crisis,” as in “you never know when you’ll need three fondue pots.”

“Maybe perceived crises don’t drive my actions much anymore,” she writes, “or maybe I don’t perceive the issues as crises.” Since cancer survivors find themselves engaged in disencumbering themselves, perhaps Project Divest has less to do with my impending death and more to do with the death of the self that required all that stuff.

In one of the finest cancer memoirs, A Whole New Life, the author Reynolds Price concluded his response to treatment of a spinal cord cancer with advice for people confronting a grave illness: “Grieve for a decent limited time over whatever parts of your old self you know you’ll miss” and then “find your way to be somebody else, the next viable you—a stripped-down whole other cleareyed person” who is “thankful for air, not to speak of the human kindness you’ll meet if you get normal luck.”

Like Reynolds Price, the sociologist Arthur W Frank responded to treatment, in his case of testicular cancer, by wishing “less to recover what I had been than to discover what else I might be.”

With Good Will, I am just saying no to recovery. I may not look it, but I feel lighter. And thanks to Dyan, I still have wool. For—little could I have imagined such a deluge of delight—the arrival of a new grandson floods my lucky life with love. I’m brimming with joy, actually with pull-out-all-the-stops ecstasy, like when in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony the whole chorus joins the orchestra to sing over and over again “Freude, schöner Götterfunken,” and spirits soar.

On a quieter note, I consider recently emptied shelves that can accommodate all the equipment babies need when their parents bring them to play. Truth to tell, there always was room in this country house. But now there’s ample space to welcome the little guy into my besotted heart.


—©2014New York Times

Published: 25-09-2014 11:28

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