I’ll Have to Call It “Cancer”

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.


38 thoughts on “I’ll Have to Call It “Cancer”

  1. Jessica! I am reading this right before I leave for work and am now crying. I’m sorry. I will quit. Honestly. I want to. I finally want to after all of these years. I love you too much to read these words and not quit.

  2. Great message, Jessica. We have all been so affected by cancer. I have lost 2 uncles and both of my parents to lung cancer. I wish that someone had convinced them to quit when they were young.

  3. This made me cry for so many reasons. Well written, Jess. I suspect every reader could add to your list of cancer victims and survivors. None of us want Katie to face the terrors of the disease first hand. While quitting is hard, undergoing cancer treatment, surgery, radiation and all the rest is way harder. I believe in her and know she will do it this time! That would be the best holiday gift she could give herself and her loved ones.

  4. It’s so hard but I hope your sister can find the strength to quit. My mother smoked the whole time I was growing up and tried but couldn’t quit. She died when she was 66 of smoking related illnesses that made her very sick to the point of being an invalid for five years (and she still couldn’t quit). Even at 58 she couldn’t walk a short (quarter mile) distance to cut down a Christmas tree with my then-2-year-old son. It was pretty hard to understand… for him and for me. I wish your sister well because it’s such a tough thing to beat.

  5. Anything we can do to live a healthier life is worth it. Then, we will never doubt that we did our best and we will ultimately live a better life…happy, healthy, without a crutch…the people we love deserve that…

  6. What a touching and heart-wrenching post. Cancer really is everywhere. I know a lot of people and families who have been touched by it, people that I never would’ve suspected. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to hear a woman’s story about her breast cancer battle. Her strength urged me to write a story, and with her blessing I did. I titled it “Cancer CAN’T”. I entered it into a contest and I may not win, but I will find some way to get it out there.

    I hope your sister does quit smoking, I am praying your mom’s test will come out negative, and I’m wishing all of you good health. xoxo

  7. It is everywhere and so many don’t have a choice like my friend who I wrote about in HerStories. I hope your sister quits. Life without my sisters is unthinkable and we should all take any measure we can to be healthy and strong for each other as long as we can!

  8. What a great gift to your sister. Help her quit as it is not easy but it can be done. I quit 18 years ago. Your body will repair Katie and your chances of cancer will return to the same as others.

  9. Beautifully said Jess – I hope Katie wins the battle! I know it is very tough. But she is tough and can do it!

  10. Beautiful post, as always. I will add fuel to the fire; my dad died of bladder and throat cancer 25 years ago. Smoking is the No. 1 cause of bladder cancer. I grew up in my parents’ home, where both of them smoked multiple packs of cigarettes a day. 20 years after my dad’s death, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer after having never smoked a cigarette. Directly, that is.
    Please don’t think I’m blaming my parents. I’m not. They grew up in a different generation. And I’m sure quitting is extremely difficult. But Jess can now be sure that she is not only protecting her own health but also the health of those she loves. I’ve only met her once or twice but I know she’s strong enough to do this.

  11. Please quit Katie!! You are a bright light in this dark world and we can’t afford to lose you! You can do it! I know you can! Look at all of your other accomplishments that you have made. It may not be easy but you have proven before that if you put your mind to it you can do anything.
    Awesome post as always Jess! Let me know if you need back up. I am really good at breaking cigarettes. 😉 I think you know how I feel about the smoking…..

  12. You comments about how adults talk about cancer reminded me of how my grandmother used to refer to it as “the big C” or something like that. It was as though she feared mentioning it by name, lest it come visit her family.

  13. I see I have a typo in my comments above. Should be “Katie can be sure…” not “Jess.” Sometimes the brain and the fingers are not well coordinated.

  14. Will be curious how your sister responds!

    I got a chance to meet Phyllis this year (Sam’s mom.) We have many friends in common in the small Jewish Midwest world. And she’s the rabbi at the synagogue very close to my parents’ house. We decided to purposely meet up at a spinning class last time I was visiting my parents. That was when Sam was in remission. Things were looking so much better. The posts have been heartbreaking.

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