In one week and two days, I will be finished with nine months of treatment for cancer. First they poison you; then they mutilate you; then they burn you. I’ve had more fun. And when it’s almost over, you’re so glad that you’re grateful to absolutely everyone. And I am.
We’ve all done our best here; whether this thing comes back is out of all of our hands. My wise friend Marlyn Schwartz said that those of us who survive owe a debt – to Carole Kneeland, Mary Sherrill, Jocelyn Gray and all the others who didn’t make it. They would have given anything they owned, any part of their bodies, for the gift of life. We who survive have it, and we owe it to them to cherish it – joyfully.
The trouble is, I’m not a better person. I was in great hopes that confronting my own mortality would make me deeper, more thoughtful. Many lovely people sent books on how to find a deeper spiritual meaning in life. My response was, “Oh, hell, I can’t go on a spiritual journey – I’m constipated.” Being sick actually narrows your world, I’m afraid – makes you focus more on yourself. Maybe when it’s over and you don’t feel like crud all the time, then your spirit soars. The chief reason to keep working is because it takes your mind off yourself.
The main thing they tell you, over and over, is that this is different for everyone. Everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy, to surgery, to radiation. I even got mad at Marlyn, who simply sailed through chemo. I vomited in the office, couldn’t sleep forever, lost fifty pounds. I don’t recommend the diet. I was like, “Help, I’m flunking cancer.” Of course, I laughed a lot – who could not laugh? There’s even a cancer-humor website called “Tarry, Black Stools.” I got my first hair a few weeks ago. It came in right next to my mouth – that little moustache I’ve always hated. That God – what a sense of humor.
Before surgery, my friend Mercedes Peña decided that I needed to get in touch with my emotions. I’d just as soon not hear from my emotions; I suspect that they’re largely unpleasant. A long-distance call once or twice a year is enough for me. But Mercy insisted. Sure enough, I was not happy about having a radical mastectomy. I said, “Mercy, how in the world do you Latinas do this every day, all the time in touch with the emotions?” She said seriously, “That’s why we take siestas.”
Cancer is good for the priorities. Traffic, for one thing, is not worth getting upset about. As my pal Spike Gillespie says, you look at those fools honking, getting steamed, cutting in front of you and you just think, “Hey, it’s not a malignant tumor, you know?” You can’t get through this without a lot of help from your friends. I had a party for all my helpers after I got through with chemo. It’s hard for me to talk about things that I care deeply about without at least trying to be funny, but I told them how much they mean to me. The value of that friendship is so much greater than any of the suffering caused by cancer that it’s not even remotely close. Moose McNeely said later that he thought the most important thing was not that I got all that help, but that I let people help me. He could be right.
Despite my request, untold numbers of people wrote wonderful cards, notes, letters. My friends sent funny stuff by e-mail. I’d save it up, and about once a month when I couldn’t sleep at 3 a.m., I’d be sitting in front of the computer, laughing and laughing. And I’m most grateful of all to the women who went out and got mammograms. It’s going to take me longer to write all the thank-you notes than it took to get over cancer. And that brings us to another great benefit of the Big C. It’s the world’s greatest excuse. I’ve gotten out of more stuff I didn’t want to do – even more than the stuff I missed that I did want to do. Special thanks to my boss, Paul Harral, who has had to put up with some shoddy work. Not even W. Bush’s guy Karl Rove, who would naturally like to cut my throat, has uttered a peep. (It’s OK now, Karl – it’s almost over.)
Judith Curtis wrote me at the beginning: “I drank through the whole thing, I smoked through the whole thing, I demanded totally uncritical love from everyone around me, and I hated the lady from the American Cancer Society.” My role model. The docs were great; the staff was great. And Judythe Wilbur, who went with me for a blood draw at 2 p.m. and was still with me when I got out of the hospital at 3 a.m., at least got to meet the male nurse with the ponytail who plays biker-gospel-rock for prisoners. It’s important to keep medical staff amused. Right now I’m working on stories about the love life of Clyde, the radiation machine. On weekends, he sneaks across the hall and offers to share electricity with the CAT scan machine. He’s even hustling the office Xerox. Clyde’s a tomcat.
Cancer is not easy, it is not pleasant, and given a choice, I would just as soon have skipped it. But I now know what all survivors know, and I am grateful. So grateful.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her new book from Random House, with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. You may write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.