The first time I heard about cancer I was about nine. I was alone, having an avocado for dinner and watching a Telethon dedicated to genetic disorders and raising funds for gene therapy. They were presenting sick children in a stable with horses showing how that relationship with the animal could encourage children, boost their morale to fight the disease.
Children were visibly sick: their faces were swollen, their eyelids dark, or their heads were bald. But they were smiling, and not naively. They were totally aware of the preciousness and fragility of life. They were like too young philosophers giving a lesson to adults. I felt sorry for them. I found them strong and wondered how I would do in their shoes and under their hats.
They gave statistics that I didn’t try to understand but I imagine that it could also happen to me. An uncontrolable fear started to haunt me.
My mother came back home and as soon as she opened the door I changed the channel, my eyes full of tears. The last words I’ve heard were “nowadays scientists haven’t found yet a remedy to AIDS, cancer and other genetic diseases.” And for some reasons I associated these diseases to numbers. 1 for AIDS, 2 for Cancer and 3 for other genetic diseases. For many years these numbers and these words have been floating in my mind like a mortal podium I had to avoid at any price.
I think at that age where other kids make fun of you about anything I was as shocked by the consequences of a chemotherapy like losing hair as I was by death itself. When you are a child, humiliation is a little death.
My mother looked at me and asked “don’t you finish your avocado?” I said “I’m not so hungry anymore.”
Second time I have met cancer was when Isabelle’s mum got it. I was eleven. My paternal grandmother talked about Monica being sick. She was an artist painting on glass. When I think about her I see that dove carrying a flower in its beak, one of the pieces she had created and offered to my granny. It is a symbol of peace to me.
I asked if it was serious and it looked like it and the word “cancer” being said, atmosphere became heavier.
So Isabelle came more often to my granny’s place who was her neighbour, to do her homework and sometimes to play with me. Monica just started her chemotherapy and needed support to take care of the girls, Isabelle and her sister Laura. Their dad was working a lot as a teacher in town.
I was happy to see Isabelle at my grandmother and not only at school. Until that day when Isabelle wanted to get one book from her house and I came along with her. While she was looking for her book I went to the bathroom. There, I discovered the wig on its head stand. I felt embarrassed and intrigued at the same time. I peed and left the room. Should I pretend I didn’t see or ask for more information? I asked Isabelle what was that wig and she explained that her mum just received it after ordering it and that soon she will be wearing it. I fell terribly guilty for asking that question since I knew the answer. I think I did it because I couldn’t believe that all that was happening here and now, so close to me. And I liked Monica who had always been nice to me and I didn’t want Isabelle to be sad. Isabelle quickly changed the topic of the conversation and I never dared to talk about wig or cancer with her after that episode.
The following months Isabelle was regularly missing school and sometimes she didn’t visit my granny. And her marks were worse and worse. She talked less and less. Sometimes when I got a ride and had a view on the village I checked Isabelle’s house to see if she was at home. But most of the time windows shutters were closed. I wondered if I would see Isabelle again.
And one morning Mr Morzynski announced to the class that Isabelle’s mum died and that we won’t see the girl for a while. It was sad although I knew it but that confirmation made it real.
Weeks without seeing Isabelle, she finally came back just before Summer holidays. I met her again in junior high school but she wasn’t the same. She grew up too fast but somehow stayed stuck at that precise moment when her mum went away. Like if her childhood had been petrified. And our friendship died.
It was the first time cancer proved to be fatal.
When I was 12 and hormonal changes started to transform my body I thought I had breast cancer. It was probably inspired by television and Monica’s experience. I used to practice that self-examination each night in my bed and I could feel some glands that I associated to lumps then to tumors then to breast cancer. And I cried in silent until I fell asleep. And that for maybe three months. I thought I had cancer but didn’t dare to discuss about it with anyone. I thought that my parents would make fun of me and I imagined the conversation: “Mum, Dad, I think I have a breast cancer.” “What a funny idea, to get breast cancer you have to get boobs, and it’s obviously not the case. Breast cancer! Ah ah!”
So I kept it for me. Also, I didn’t tell my friends because I wasn’t so intimate or even close to them. I was living in the country side without any access to public transportation and Internet was unknown to me. So I tried to live without thinking that I would die sooner or later.
I don’t even know how that idea of having breast cancer left my mind. Maybe my teen boobs revealed themselves.
When I was maybe 26 my uncle died. Of cancer. His disease was kind of mysterious in the beginning. My father, since my uncle was my dad’s brother, talked about troubles, exams, treatment, operation, diet, new treatment, new troubles… It lasted for months. I asked him many questions at first, I didn’t get answers. Was it a taboo? Most probably. Then he said it was possibly carcinogenic. Then it was cancer. Not a small one but a lethal one.
I wasn’t very close to my uncle since geographically we had always been far away from each other. I actually didn’t know him so well. But I used to meet him each Christmas Eve dinner as a child. He was a good cook. He loved wine and jokes. But he was always so serious that I always took him seriously. Maybe I shouldn’t have and it was only modesty. I was slightly afraid of him I think. I saw him in a terrible anger when I was a child, telling his two daughters Lisette and Gabrielle off. So when he was sick I called him once or twice to say hello, happy birthday or happy new year. But not that special year. During these months of suffering I didn’t want to get suddenly closer whereas I had been distant in the past. As distant as he had been. I thought it would have looked condescending or shown a sign of pity. I wanted to show love and compassion but nothing sad as pity. So I kept the place I had always had and I hope he didn’t mind. Maybe he didn’t notice anything. How to react face to someone sick or dying? Should we adapt our behaviour or keep the same? What does the person is expecting? More or less attention? Do they want to share their vulnerability or even become food for guilt or Judeo-Christian good conscience? They might want to be considered as they have always been, they might want to spend the rest of their short life with their closest friends and loved ones, without parasites’ good intentions. They might want to be seen as human beings, not as sick people. They don’t want to be assimilated to death. They want to be remembered for the positive things they’ve done and the nice moments they had.
My uncle was finally retired after having worked so hard for many years but he didn’t have time to enjoy this retirement. My auntie thinks he never digested my cousin’s death and that it killed him.
He spent New Year’s Eve at home surrounded by his wife and daughter. The day after he left that world for (maybe) a better one.
So cancer is there, in the air, waiting for its next victim. There, just in the corner, when you don’t expect it. The lifetime risk of developing cancer in the United States for example is 38,17% for a woman and 44,81% for a man. Which means that more than 1/3 of the US population is at risk.