Home About Us Features Write Now! Submit Resources

750 Words about Cancer

by Rebecca Housel

The ceiling creaks with every step. My family moves in clandestine patterns while I type at the computer in my red-room below. The room is red for a reason, not just because I enjoy the color, though I do. The red is for passion, the kind of passion that can take a person to the extremes of joy and pain. I've been marked by both, and so paint my writing room red, to remind me.

I seek the shrouded truth of Vedanta, the light of God in Christianity, the sechel, or reason, in Judaism, and the compassionate wisdom of Buddhism. All keys to the universe, just not mine. As a cancer patient, there is no single key. How can there be? The universe is a large, complex place with many white-coated gods in sterile hospitals. Mine is a polytheistic world.

I have survived three cancer diagnoses in the last fifteen years, two brain tumors and melanoma. I'm thirty-four. Is there sense in sensibility? Is there brevity in wit? And what about the soul? Lots of questions, very few answers—that's something you get used to. You have to.

There are a great many "have-to's" when you face cancer. You don't want to have your skull drilled full of holes, then, listen to doctors play connect-the-dots with a surgical saw, and lift out your skull, exposing the fragile gray matter beneath. You don't want to be awake with a valium drip for the seventeen-hour surgery. You don't want to recognize in hour-ten that you cannot move the left side of your body in panic and fear, and have an anesthesiologist named Surriel tell you to not be upset because you are going to sleep now. You don't want any of those things, but it doesn't matter what you want. You have to.

You have to face weeks in a rehabilitation hospital with nurses who disguise bullying with care. You have to go on to endure nine months of intensive chemotherapy where you lose ninety-pounds, your balance, and your feelings…about everything. You have to consider the unthinkable: What will happen to my family if I die? What will happen to the $60,000 in student loans? Will my husband have to repay that, if I die? Will my son grow up to be a good man? Will my husband find a new wife? Will anyone remember I used to sit in a red room and write? Lots of questions. No answers.

I've made a discovery though, now being an expert on questions without answers. The question of why is always irrelevant. The only true question is why not. Why not? Why not die? Why not get sick? Why not get well? Why not travel to Australia? Why not live every moment to the very fullest? Why not? Not why.

The language is important. You predict the future with your words. Coelho's conspiring universe will help, too. You're like an alchemist trying to turn lapis exillis into gold. But there is no holy grail—it's a stone called Moldavite, found in Moldavia.

The words you avoid are statistics and numbers. They deal in absolutes, and the universe is nothing more than string. Wave-like particles entangling with stationary particles…and then, anything is possible, at least at the sub-atomic level. But isn't that where cancer starts?

There are one-hundred and twenty varieties of brain tumors. Brain cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death. If you live in Australia, melanoma is the number one cause of cancer death. Over 190,000 people will be diagnosed with brain tumors in the United States in 2006. One-third of the female population of New York State is diagnosed with cancer each year. It's good to avoid this kind of language. Better to use the more fluid language of creativity.

We are not diagnosed with a deadly disease, we are merely interrupted, as if in the middle of an engaging phone conversation, and then, a child tugs at the hem of your blouse to ask an absurd question that has no answer; the question is being asked purely to distract you from the current call so you may pay more attention to the child. That is it. That is cancer.

You don't believe my words, my language? Maybe you don't want to believe. Belief can be suspended to let truth peek in under your skull and into your gray matter, the surgical saw still buzzing in your ear. Why? No, no—it's why not.

"750 Words About Cancer" was originally published in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Fall, 2006.

Rebecca Housel, a three-time, sixteen-year survivor of multiple cancers is a professor of English at RIT in western New York. She has completed a forthcoming volume of illness narratives for UNSW based on the experiences of twelve female cancer survivors. The book is due for publication in 2008.