The New York Times Well
October 11, 2012
I used to resent the battle metaphors associated with cancer. “Keep fighting,” people would say. “You’re going to win this war,” a friend would write in an e-mail.
I could appreciate the intent behind the word, but I just couldn’t identify. Most of the time, I didn’t feel like battling at all. I was just doing what I needed to do to have a shot at surviving. Many people told me I was brave. But I didn’t feel brave. I was simply following the orders of my doctors.
A battle, to me, suggested some kind of active combat, with weapons and soldiers by my side. But most of my cancer journey has been spent lying in a hospital bed in isolation, feeling alone and defenseless, hoping for the best. Some people like to visualize chemotherapy as a surge of soldiers entering the bloodstream to wage war on the cancer cells. But this never worked for me either.
Cancer is mostly an internal affliction. My cancer lived in my bone marrow and was completely invisible to me. It was difficult to fight an enemy that I couldn’t see, feel or touch. After finding out I had cancer, I didn’t feel like a fighter. I was scared and realized I knew almost nothing about a disease that had a big head start on me.
But last week, I woke up feeling frail, tired and seasick in my own bed. It was a dreary Friday morning, and it was the last day of my third round of preventive chemotherapy. I simply could not conceive of getting out of bed and dragging myself to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for my treatment. It wasn’t because of my physical symptoms. I’d been much sicker before. But after a year and a half of nonstop chemotherapy treatments and a bone-marrow transplant in April, I was now cancer-free — for the time being — and yet my doctors were advising more chemotherapy to prevent a relapse.
The road ahead seemed never-ending. I had reached my limit: No more bone marrow biopsies. No more doctor visits. No more anti-nausea medication. I wanted to be done. For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt like giving up and quitting.
Then I surprised myself. I knew that realistically, I couldn’t abandon the chemotherapy because it was the only possible way to a cure. So I gave myself a pep talk using the very same battle metaphors that had annoyed me in the past. I imagined myself as a warrior in battle — both with my cancer and with myself. The image empowered me and motivated me to get out of bed and go to the hospital to receive the last injection of this round of chemo. During the cab ride, I told myself, over and over: “Don’t quit. Keep fighting.”
It worked, and it made me feel better. But this is the Catch-22 for a cancer patient: We must poison ourselves in the short term to hope for a cure in the long term, knowing full well we will get sicker before we get better. And the worst of it is knowing that certain types of chemotherapy can cause secondary cancers. But it’s a trade-off nearly every cancer patient accepts.
Sometimes getting through chemotherapy is all about ignoring the voice in your head that screams “stop.”
Suleika Jaouad (pronounced su-LAKE-uh ja-WAD) is a 24-year-old writer who lives in New York City. Her column, “Life, Interrupted,” chronicling her experiences as a young adult with cancer, appears every other week on Well. Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter.