Sunday, August 5, 2012

What cancer brings...

 From Day One  At a personal level, unforgettable days earn that rank, their space on a calendar often invisible to anyone but you. Generally unnoticed, their anniversaries aren’t celebrated with cakes and cards.

Perhaps they should be. I feel that way whenever I’m asked about colon cancer, especially my experience living with it. Usually, I supply details that may be relevant to the query. Most often, the questioner and I discover that our cases are different. Even so, sharing our stories seems to spread the effect of fear and pain in a way that diminishes those aspects of the illness.

As a writer, I felt a similar result when the fright and shock of cancer found expression in my poetry and my essays. In fact, when a friend from Norfolk who volunteered at the cancer wing of an eastern Virginia hospital read my chapbook, I Am One Too, dedicated to cancer patients, he purchased four dozen copies to give to patients there.

What those poems and essays do for me is really what I try to share. Since I’m familiar now with the progression of responses to news of the illness, I often think that I could have named my collection Day One: The Call.

Although the message is etched in my brain, who the caller was is a blur. “The entire tumor was cancerous,” they said. “There were no clear blue lines.” Later I would be told that meant the surgeon wasn’t sure he’d “gotten it all.” But that didn’t matter to the caller. What had to be done, “immediately,” was to schedule a resection of my colon.

That call came on July 4th, thirteen years ago. Indeed, Independence Day is extremely special to me every year. Doing double duty, it serves as a reliable reminder that every day is precious, that our every thought and feeling and action has some meaning worth receiving and sharing.

Finding words to describe those thoughts and feelings is important to me, especially because I know that what I write may connect a reader to the significance of his or her emotions. In a sense, my writing can sometimes be as a remedy that clarifies and helps define emotions clouded by shock and misery.

So I write. In earnest. And not just about cancer. I write about people who have touched me, whose efforts I respect and appreciate. Some of those people are my students. Others are friends who “normally don’t share their stuff.” But I write about them, their triumphs and their disasters.

All of it matters.

Now and then I find a writer who has a story about their cancer. Reading their work reconnects me with my emotional history that started at Day One.

That happened yesterday when I read this from Professor Barry Rubin, a man whose insights often have served as crucial supports regarding my political positions concerning Israel and its neighbors. For me (and for many others, I’m sure), his intellect and his diligence have served as standards a mentor might set.

Nothing is stranger than having a normal life and then within a few hours knowing that it might end at almost any moment. That’s what happened to me when I was just diagnosed with what is called inoperable lung cancer. I am still waiting final results of the tests and the choice of therapies.

Although I’ve never met him, I’ve admired Professor Rubin for years. Only now have I been able to glimpse his guidelines, those pillars that gird his good work. In a sense, they come as a blessing cancer prompted him to give. I welcome his reflections; each word rings true:

For 2000 years my ancestors dreamed of returning to their homeland [Israel] and reestablishing their sovereignty. I have had the privilege of living that dream. How amazing is that?

We have to judge ourselves by whether we’ve lived up to our ideals and done our best. Not by the accumulation of power, wealth or fame; not for failing to achieve the impossible.

A famous Jewish story about that is the tale of Rabbi Zosia who said that he did not expect God to berate him for not having been Moses—who he wasn’t—but for not having been Zosia.

To me, that means we must do the best to be ourselves while trying to make ourselves as good as possible. I’ve really tried to do that. I don’t have big regrets, nor bitterness, nor would I have done things very differently.

And I’ve discovered the brave community of those who are supporting and encouraging each other in the battle against this disease.

                        B.Koplen 8/5/12

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