Sadhvi Batra, a former student of mine from the Science and Technology Honors Program, is completing a Master’s in Public Health at UAB prior to heading off to medical school. This semester, she’s enrolled in an epidemiology course, and one assignment requires her to create a blog devoted to a particular health issue. She selected breast cancer and asked me to respond to some questions about my experiences for one of her posts.
The task appeared simple enough, since most of Sadhvi’s questions focused on the basics: how I responded when I first learned I had cancer, how the experience changed my life, how I choose to channel the experience into advocacy and writing, and what advice I’d give to other breast cancer survivors. As I worked through the questions, though, I began to see things that I haven’t noticed in a long time. Because I knew I was writing down my experiences for a blog post, I responded in a conversational tone–a departure from the theory-driven prose I often rely on when writing for an academic audience.
Here, for example, is how I answered Sadhvi’s question about mustering the strength to respond to a life-threatening disease:
“I wouldn’t say that survivors somehow discover a hidden source of strength and that’s what gets them through. The fact is that when bad things happen, and I’d certainly call a cancer diagnosis a pretty bad thing, you have a choice. You can either lose yourself in grief or pick yourself up and figure out how to move on. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you find a happy place in Cancerland (as Barbara Ehrenreich calls the culture of pink that many associate with breast cancer) or that you discover a way to get over/forget the trauma of cancer. It just means that you move on knowing that your life, however long it might be, won’t be the same as it was before diagnosis. Regardless of the challenges you face, you can still maintain passion for the people you care about and you can use the experience to do something productive.”
And here’s my response to a question about how experiencing a devastating illness changed me:
“Having breast cancer at a young age (29), and then experiencing it again when I was a little bit older (and facing a different set of challenges), has undoubtedly colored my world. I am basically a hopeful person, but I also expect life to throw me some curveballs. I think that’s what living is–enjoying some good times and learning how to endure the bad times. Bad things are going to happen, and they should, I think, in equal measure. Otherwise, what are we doing here?
I wouldn’t say that I am grateful for my diagnosis, but I would say that my identity as a survivor has forced me to search for a level of depth that I might not have gone looking for had cancer not happened.
I’ve seen things that I might never have slowed down long enough to see because of cancer. I’ve held the hand of a man dying of cancer in a hospice along the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal, and I rubbed the forehead of a young woman suffering from advanced cervical cancer in Lusaka, Zambia. I’ve accompanied my friend, Edwina, who spent most of her years living on the streets of Birmingham, to appointments at Cooper Green and insisted that her doctors give her the same level of care as any other patient.”
Once I started talking about my life in plain English, allowing myself to acknowledge how I feel as well as how I think, I discovered something that I tend to forget when I’m caught up in the frenzy of pitching ideas to editors, writing and revising, and racing against real (and imaginary) deadlines. My experiences as a cancer survivor and as a friend to others facing cancer are worth sharing. They don’t always have to be presented through an angle that shouts, “Hey, this is why readers should care about this!” or “Here’s a theory that will explain why I feel the way I do.” Sometimes, it’s enough just to tell it like it is. No apologies.