This ‘thing’ won’t win, read the words scorching my screen and my eyeballs.
My stepmom is incandescent with rage. She is ablaze with the fury of someone who has been submitting to gruelling cancer treatment since last September only to feel the tumor again. While the first round of chemo was successful and reduced both the tumor in her breast and many metastases, today something is off.
So off that she texts me to ask if Dad can call, which immediately activates my high alert mode. I’ll be back in Paris shortly, my family and I swap messages daily so there has to be a new issue that requires immediate attention.
The minute my father says hello, I know it’s not going to be good.
He’s a sensitive and emotional man and even though he’s trying to be chirpy and upbeat, he sounds utterly defeated. At one point, I’m talking to him and my stepmom answers me, which means he must have handed her the phone because he just can’t come out with it, whatever it is.
After a couple of minutes catching up on domestic details, my stepmom tells me she’s just about had it with this illness but there isn’t a hint of resignation in her voice.
Instead, she’s getting angrier and angrier by the minute, which is always quite something as she’s outspoken and from the South. She has what we French Northerners call a Mediterranean temper, very expressive.
“You know, maybe it’s all in my head but I think the tumor has grown again. I think I can feel it,” she says.
She can and she did, and so did Dad.
And that’s why he’s shattered.
Cancer patients will often seek to protect those they love from the harrowing reality of their illness.
This is why my stepmom still sprinkles her fears with a soupçon of doubt, out of habit and for my father’s benefit as he’s listening in. But she and I have no filter; we’re both pragmatic and blunt with a shared dislike of magical thinking. Dad, meanwhile, is a die-hard optimist who is no stranger to embracing self-delusion on occasions.
“You know your body, A.” I reply, “but wait and see until we find out for sure what’s going on from your oncologist.”
The appointment in on the first week of May so we’re almost there and I’ll be attending it with my parents.
After spending an hour on the phone, we say goodbye. For a long while, I stand in my kitchen thousands of miles away in the Pacific Northwest, gazing at the clouds above the mountains.
While I accepted the reality of metastatic breast cancer as soon as the diagnosis hit, it sounds like it is just starting to register with my parents.
And because A.’s oncologist manages her care by emphasizing the positive, she and Dad aren’t fully cognizant of how bad things are. This is what I’m here for, to carry knowledge that’d likely crush them and cause them to capitulate. My stepbrother, meanwhile, has the same disposition as my father and remains in denial.
I take a deep breath and make coffee, intending to get back to work. But there’s a hockey puck in my throat and I find myself staring at the screen, the latter an anomaly. My stepmom’s anger and my father’s distress have thrown me for a loop.
Soon I realize tears are rolling down my cheeks.
Cancer is a family affair.
At least for us, because not every patient has relatives, and those who do don’t always have relatives who care. In my parents’ case, it goes beyond family as they have an extensive circle of friends who have all rallied around them.
When it comes to providing them both with practical help however, it’s on me at the moment. This is why I’m letting the tears flow free, because now is the time to feel everything and repress nothing while I’m still at home in the US. Here, there’s no one but my cats to witness my coming undone, and they’re so good at comforting me that my episode doesn’t last long.
It can’t; I have to remain functional for my parents. And while this may sound like a tall order, it actually isn’t. My work is once again in perfect alignment with vocation so never feels like a chore, and it is portable. In fact, I enjoy it so much that it even provides solace and respite when the going gets tough. Meanwhile, my parents’ home is never not bathed in love these days, even when we bicker. And I too have friendship propping me up, much like they do.
My stepmom’s rage is so powerful I decide to co-opt it. As the popular hashtag goes, #FuckCancer, and just saying this out loud has an immediate invigorating effect. There’s a reason this hashtag exists all over social media; it allows millions of patients and their relatives to rant and rave openly about the illness around the world. And around the clock.
Getting angry can wake you up from stupor when you’re stuck and provide an effective coping mechanism.
Rage is a fire that can help you face up to the most unimaginable things, put a spring in your step, and even thrive.
And my stepmom intends to continue doing just that for as long as she can.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.