This has been the Two Years of Cancer (Not My Own). That’s the title I’ve given a period in my life where close friends my age and a young family member, as well as a slew of acquaintances, battled monsters within their own cells. Some won — even achieved miraculously complete recoveries — and some we lost.
My friend Teshima was my radio producer when we covered Hurricane Katrina. That experience changed me, and gave me a deeper appreciation for and fear of both natural and manmade disasters; and for our government, as I saw civilian law briefly suspended in New Orleans. How fragile our cities and civic space can be.
Our friend Mary Honore and her friend Bernie, a law school classmate, put me and Teshima up. We lived in a state of hypersensitivity to the destruction and the mangling of cultural nuance in the news, but then Teshima and I got to come back to Bernie’s place and discuss race, disaster, hope and faith in the context of an extended family brought together by disaster. It was beautiful. And that is just one of many ways I will remember Teshima Walker Izrael, former executive producer of NPR’s Tell Me More. My condolences to her family and I will miss her.
Danielle was a lover and a fighter. My cousin’s child, she had a dark chocolate birthmark on her face, and as when she smiled widely — as she did often while playing as a little girl, or computing or making cupcakes later — I thought it set off a beauty that was uniquely hers, and a bit ethereal. But along with her gentle manner, she was a competitor– running cross country and playing basketball and excelling in her studies (and her duties as an older sister to her two younger ones). She was diagnosed with pontine glioma, an aggressive brain stem tumor that takes most people (often children) to the grave. I helped research an extraordinary surgeon, Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, and his colleague Dr. George Jallo, who performed a surgery the family hoped would save her life. She was left with partial paralysis, but learned for a while to walk again. I took the research I’d done on pontine gliomas and started sharing it with people in need.
The surgery did not save her life, ultimately, but it extended it. She saw another Thanksgiving and another birthday. She died at fifteen. She raised money for cancer research to help others even as she was dying. She had the spirit of a Bodhisattva, someone who devotes their life to helping others.
So did my grandmother, Mary Catherine Stokes. She took such good care of so many, sometimes pushing her own limits to do so. She died ten years ago in summer, but had her doctors not been negligent in treating the symptoms of what turned out to be colon cancer, I believe she could still be with us today. I believe deeply that the fact she was an older black woman was one of the reasons she was not given the care or respect she deserved as a patient. Our family didn’t sue, but sometimes I wonder if we should have just to demonstrate the value of her life, even if in an inadequate way (as no amount of money can compensate for a life.) The poem below, published in her chapbook, is about the emotional toll of watching my uncle with schizophrenia come and go from her life.
All of this death has of course made me think about my own life — fairly predictable since I, like most humans, am fixated on my own being and well-being. The Two Years of Cancer (Not Mine) made me turn back to a spiritual practice, in a Buddhist tradition. I meditate to mitigate what some teachings call “self-cherishing,” but I still cling to my self-obsessions dearly. And I wonder, as we all proceed towards death, how much we can change those parts of ourselves that seem baked-in, whether by nature or nurture? And what about the stuff that really is baked-in, the hidden secrets of our genomes.
Despite the untimely deaths of those around me, I have no desire to have my genome scanned or sequenced just yet. The cancers in my immediate-extended (grandparents and their progeny) family have tended to occur late in life or spontaneously. I’m not convinced that now is the time for me to fish around finding out what diseases I might or might not fall prone to. I know I don’t have the trait for sickle cell, because that was something black families got tested for when I was a kid. I know my blood type, my cholesterol level, and my blood pressure. I don’t know a lot of other things, and that’s okay with me, for now. I’m working on a science fiction novel that gets into bioengineering and genomics. I know as years pass we will learn so much more about how our bodies work, and how to fight disease and prolong life. But I’m assuming our human problems will remain — how to allocate resources, including medical ones, and who to save first, at what price.
The Two Years of Cancer (Not My Own) have been brutal, but informative. I hope this period of my life — the watching people fall sick and die part — subsides for a while. But it will return. Death always does. And life goes on.