This morning, I read a lot of The New York Times. I read an article about the Amazon, two about being 17 in 1980, and this one, about a woman whose family has a long history of breast cancer. The woman, age 33, had a preventative mastectomy because nearly every other woman in her family had developed breast cancer or ovarian cancer around that same age.
It got me thinking about my own family history. On my father’s side, there is a long line of cancers of various kinds. Now, only my brothers and sisters are alive to tell me part of that history as everyone from the older generations have died. My father had advanced renal cell carcinoma when it was first discovered and which thereafter quickly matastisized throughout his body, if it hadn’t already started to do so before the doctor found it. But before it was all said and done, I learned that his mother had had a different type the disease, and perhaps so did his father. (I was never quite sure if his father had a brain tumor or an aneurism. Then again, I think my grandfather died in the 1940s, so I don’t know what to believe about the medical story anyhow. It also feels weird to call him “my grandfather” as I have no personal connection to the man, having seen only one or two photos of him in my life. The same with “my grandmother” on my father’s side. The truth is, I didn’t know my father’s side of the family well at all; to my knowledge, it was just my father the whole time.)
The article had me thinking about preventative surgeries. Would I ever do a thing like that, if I knew I ran the risk of developing cancer? And if so, what would I operate on? If my family has had everything from kidney issues to brain issues to skin issues, what would I do to prevent anything? It’s kind of like dealing from a deck of cancer cards in my family: you’ll probably get something, but what it is or where it’ll pop up is anyone’s guess. All of my brothers and sisters are healthy right now, and they’re much older than I am which makes me feel relieved. But I wonder, if like me, they’ve got some latent fears about their own health in later years.
When Jake came to visit me here in Brazil, we talked for a while about cancer. He’s a doctor of sorts, so because of that title, I felt comfortable talking to him about what little he knows professionally about the disease itself, mostly to alleviate the fears I have about growing older and maybe growing sick. Jake was able to put some of my nerves at ease, mostly by telling me that some cancers are not exactly genetic and more environmental, which thanks to 6th grade Health classes and having a Health teacher for a mother, I already knew. Jake told me that just because a parent has some type of cancer doesn’t mean I’ll automatically get it. It’s what I needed to hear.
It’s not like I sit here all day thinking about cancer, nor that I am making myself sick from worry about what might happen to me in the future. But the woman in the article I read today said something like, “I don’t want to treat the disease. I just don’t want the disease,” which, I think, is a valid concern especially after seeing a parent or loved one go through serious treatment. The scariest times in my life, apart from getting mugged on my street here, was seeing my dad sick and going through treatment and going through the ups and downs (mostly downs) of being ill until the very end.
When I think of having a family and having a life later on, a small part of me understands that there is a real possibility of becoming sick. I know that’s true for everyone, and especially now that it seems the whole world has something, my fear is probably not unique. To what degree do I prevent myself from having and doing things because of this fear, this possibility? Do I risk having a family knowing that one day I might leave them?
This also ties in closely to my fear of divorce, knowing that it is the last thing I want to do, which is probably why I’m not comfortable talking about or thinking about marriage. I’m not interested in that thing marriage at all and I hope someday I am, but I’m so afraid of the “forever” part knowing that nothing at all is forever. So how’s it possible for a marriage to work if you’re lying from right there at the start? People talk about “faith” and whatnot, but I have no idea what that means. Positive thinking, I guess. God only knows I did enough positive thinking when I was a kid when my dad was sick and I’m not exactly sure where that got me.
I run away a lot. I’ve left more places than I care to remember for reasons I’ve already forgotten. It’s my way to deal with ugly situations and situations I imagine will get ugly. Of course, my running away comes in the smartest of manners: graduate school, work, Brazil. And I’ve been able to classify my running away as “finding myself,” and “going after the dream.” It’s true, too, not bullshit. I have been working, I have been fulfilling dreams. But I wonder, really, if all this running has been in vain. If these things are inside of me, literally a potential cancer or a fear of commitment, what the hell am I doing with all this running? I’m not going to cut out all my insides to not have cancer, so how do I deal with that fear? I’m not going to get married just to commit, so how do I deal with that fear?
I’ve told my students over the years to confront their fears, to confront their problems. Just a couple of days ago, students talked to me about problems they were having with friends. What was my advice? “If your friendship matters to you, which I know it does, don’t turn your back on your friend. Get together. Talk to your friend. The problem’s not going to solve itself, so you do it.” Later that day, I saw them together, in love with each other as friends should rightfully be.
So, taking my own advice, I’m just going to call a quick meeting with myself, little cancer cells, and potential husbands. I’ll sit them down over some Starbucks and popcorn and let them know where I stand. “Listen,” I’ll tell them. “I’ve got a couple of concerns about our future together. Now don’t say anything just yet; let me say my piece and then you can talk.” I’ll tell them about my fears and why I might not be the best roommate and what I need to do in my lifetime. I’ll tell them if they let me do whatever it is I want, I’ll be more than happy to share my space with them as long as they don’t divorce me or kill me. And also if they let me spend entire weeks on the beach in Brazil without either of them near me so I can dance Forro and get tan.
Because nothing’s better for positive thinking than solitude and a good suntan.