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Friday, October 7, 2011

Not just a film, my life

So yesterday I saw the film 50/50. I had blogged about it earlier and had been eager to watch it because it seemed at least in the trailers, to be a frank and funny look at what it is like to get a cancer diagnosis and go through treatment. What I wasn’t prepared for was that it was also very heartfelt. Many cancer films often, intentionally or not, traffic in sentimentality—there is the stirring music, the sick patient lying stoicly in the hospital room, the tragic revelation of disease or death.

There wasn’t anything sentimental about this film. It was one of the things I had been hoping for—an unsentimental look at cancer. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t hard—that it wasn’t emotionally stirring. Because in its direct approach and in the portrayal of this man’s experience going to chemo and having surgery, it so vividly mirrored my own experience—the kind of prosaic nature of what it’s like to sit in a chemo chair for 4 hours, the kinds of conversations you strike up with folks in neighboring chairs. The fear that you try not to show or even acknowledge to yourself let alone to others, and yet that does surface, as it will surface, when you are wondering whether the treatment is working. Whether you will survive this surgery.

And it was the scene of the surgery in particular that really caught me off guard. I’m not going to give anything away (and the fact that he has surgery is also not something that anyone who is going to watch a cancer film is going to be surprised at either hopefully) but I did want to explain what it was that hit me in the gut. It was his vulnerability. And I don’t necessarily mean what the actor portrayed (although I do think that Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a great job in this scene of portraying vulnerability)—I guess what I mean is the simple image of seeing him in a gown on a gurney about to be wheeled into surgery, saying good-bye to his mother and talking to the anesthesiologist about not being sure whether they’d give you enough drugs so that you wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the procedure or that they would give you too much so that you wouldn’t wake up in recovery.

Apparently these were the exact questions I asked before my own surgery. I don’t remember—the whole thing was a blur. But when we were driving back from the film yesterday Matthew reminded me that I asked my own anesthesiologist these very questions. And he admitted that he cried in this scene because it was so real—because just a year ago, that had been me, with Matthew and my Mom—saying good-bye to me before being wheeled in to have my double-mastectomy surgery.

The weird thing is, I don’t remember being nervous. I’m pretty sure that they slipped in some anti-anxiety meds in my i.v. line (smart thing), so what I recall isn’t panic or fear but just a sense of calm. I remember feeling like it would all be OK, I’d take a nap and then I’d wake up and…

I suppose it’s the “and” that I didn’t know how to wrap my mind around. And in some ways still don’t. Which is why seeing that character being wheeled into surgery just hit me in the gut. Because he said all the things I had been thinking and feeling and a year later, still carry with me. The grief of a cancer diagnosis—of my cancer diagnosis—hasn’t resolved. I wonder whether it will.


  1. "I wonder whether it will." I wonder if you feel some pressure to resolve your grief, and if so where that expectation might come from. What would it mean to set aside resolution and place the transformation your grief's meaning to be (among) your life's work? Maybe this is too much to have to hold on to.

  2. Hi Jim,
    Thanks for this question. I don't think it's pressure, at least I'm not conscious of it as pressure (it might very well be)--it feels more like...contextualization and processing. I know this might sound silly, but I'm continually surprised at how much grief I have--it's still taking me by surprise. But I'll write more about this in a future post.

  3. From Arthur Frank: "Lives and groups require constant reassembling, which is Bruno Latour's general descriptor, and stories reassemble, both individually and collectively. But reassembly is as much about change as continuity; the act of reassembling does not mean keeping things, including memories, as they are."

  4. Neat post and great ideas. As I move away from active treatment and into life beyond the land of cancer, I wonder how my feelings will travel, how my memories will surface. I know now an awakening to my new form. Soon my mind will move away from that and well?
    Thanks for a great post.

  5. Thanks for writing Melly--moving away from active treatment is definitely a wonderful thing (who wants to keep going through chemo???). But it's weird, don't you feel, when you return to the land of people who think you are "normal"--folks who don't know what you've been through? Maybe I'm just someone who doesn't like to pass--who likes to wear her many identities up front and on my sleeve. Anyway, I'm glad to hear that you are moving beyond the land of cancer!

  6. I am like you Jennifer. I wear my identity out there. I just went away on a grand vacation to Switzerland and got to get away from doctors, thoughts and ideas about cancer. I got to laugh and be with my Man. It was awesome and it opened some new ideas up to me. I love my body, I have faith in its ability to heal. I like me, I know who I am.It feels good. But there is that lag, I haven't caught up with the socialized part of me yey. I am just beginning to reconnect with that part of me. Again.