by Suleika Jaouad
There is a dreadful routine to chemotherapy. My life has been synched to a chemotherapy calendar ever since my leukemia diagnosis last year. I have become an expert at predicting when side effects and symptoms will set in. It is a ghoulish monthly party, and the guests always arrive on time: nausea, vomiting, chills, exhaustion, fever, mouth sores, pain, infections and emergency hospitalizations.
Despite the clockwork of these cycles (start chemo, wait for symptoms, get sick, go to the hospital), at the start of every new round, I convince myself that the outcome will be different. This time, I am going to be stronger than my treatment. This time, my mind will outwit my body. This time.
But over the past year, after 28 rounds of treatment, not once have I won this secret battle with myself.
The cancer world is awash in battle language. Our culture repeats these warlike phrases over and over, like mantras. Cancer books love to traffic in this take-no-prisoners language. They talk about cancer warriors fighting and winning a battle for health. They even encourage patients to visualize chemotherapy as a sea of soldiers entering the bloodstream to fight off the enemy disease. In a lot of ways, it is an attractive line of thinking. It is the hero’s journey mixed with the glorification of war. It’s the us-versus-them theme — except in this case it is us-versus-us. Cancer is one’s own civil war.
My reaction to challenges has always been to fight hard for what I want. I have always prided myself as a doer. I like to compete. I like to push myself. I like to win. When I started treatment, my plan was to take on cancer like I had taken on everything else in my life.
But as much as I battle, I haven’t outwitted chemotherapy and its punitive, punctual side effects. As I write this, I am deep-in-the-bone tired, nauseated, and I haven’t left my bed in two full days. It is difficult not to equate sickness or weakness with a feeling of failure. A year and a half ago I was deciding between two job offers, while this morning I gave up on making a sandwich when I couldn’t open the jar of jam.
I am realizing that beating cancer isn’t about winning or losing. I wish it were, but it just isn’t.
I have decided that the real battle I need to fight is against this win-lose mentality. During the past few months, I have been fighting myself in many ways, succumbing to fear and anger about not being able to do what I once could.
But today I have decided that my challenge will be to develop a new brand of acceptance. Cancer has taught me that you can’t fight your way out of every problem. The solution is not to charge full speed ahead. It is counterintuitive, but I try to remind myself that chemotherapy, too, is illogical on its face; you are poisoned in order to be cured.
I realize now that the experience of having cancer is more of a tricky balancing act: being proactive about your medical condition, while simultaneously accepting and surrendering to the fact that, at least for the time being, you can’t change your reality as quickly as you would like to.
Acceptance is not giving up — far from it. But like a prisoner in handcuffs, you only waste precious energy by trying to wriggle your way free. With cancer, the best way out may just be patience.
June 21, 2012
Suleika has written about her life as a young leukemia patient in The New York Times Well section. Her essays are called Life, Interrupted.