There’s nothing else to call this post, because it’s all about cancer. But I hope you’ll keep reading.
I remember as a child listening to grown-ups talking about cancer. “The damn cancer. It’s everywhere.” They talked about it as if it were a living being—“evil” and “unrelenting.” I regarded their talk with a removed indifference as if they were speaking of bad weather. Even though I knew my maternal grandmother died of cancer before I was born. And both my grandfathers died of it before I was ten. And my uncle had been battling it as long as I could remember.
The cancer finally got that uncle, Jack. He died of leukemia in his 40s. His wife, my aunt Patty, was diagnosed with breast cancer later that same year. She underwent a mastectomy. That was sixteen years ago.
When I was in my late 20s, I heard of a younger acquaintance of mine who had lung cancer. We were not good friends—I was a senior in college when she was a freshman—but I knew her. I read the blog she wrote during her last months, and wept at work. She was not a smoker.
I thought of her recently when I read an essay in HerStories that remembers a friend who also died young of cancer.
My mom’s best friend, who might as well be my aunt, battled lung cancer a few years ago and underwent surgery. She’s been clean for awhile, although the doctors recently found a “suspicious” spot on her lung. She’s waiting to hear what it is.
Remember Michelle? She was my first friend. We grew up next door to each other. Her mom has cancer for the second time.
So does the man who lived across the street from us growing up. We often played Capture the Flag in his backyard with his children.
So does my aunt. Again. She recently found out she has the BRCA-2 gene and so, in addition to her two mastectomies, chemo, and radiation, she will also have a hysterectomy. My mother will be tested for the gene; if she’s positive, so will my sister and I.
A friend of mine often posts links on Facebook to the blog of her friend, the mother of Superman Sam, a seven-year-old boy battling leukemia. I never clicked on the links—I just couldn’t—until a couple of weeks ago. It turned out that day’s post was about the return of the cancer after a remission, and the prognosis was not good. One of the best, and worst, parts of being a parent is the ability, for better or worse, to empathize completely. My son does not have cancer. But as I read the mother’s words, my breathless sobs were for that boy I don’t know and his mother, and for my own son.
I don’t regard cancer with indifference anymore. Not even close.
Why tell you all this? Because this blog is my bully pulpit. Today I’m going to use it for a selfish purpose. Today is my sister’s birthday.
She smokes. And for the first time, I’m deeply understanding why my mother has begged and begged her to quit. I’m realizing that it’s completely possible that I will not have a sister to grow old with. To go on road trips with. To obsess over Mumford with. To spoil my children. And to know, one day, her own.
So today, in this pulpit, I’m asking her to stop smoking.
Our uncle, our aunt, our grandparents, our neighbors, our friends, and that precious little boy, did not have a choice. For now, you do.