Thursday, May 03, 2007

May 3, 2007 - Cancer Sound Bites

This evening, I attend an organizational meeting for a community-action group that's seeking to address the homelessness problem in our county. At the meeting, there are several people I know from other gatherings of this sort, church folk from other congregations in the area. Milling around in the time before the meeting, several of them come up to me and ask how I'm doing, in a focused way that clearly indicates they want to hear about my medical condition. Word does get around – or, more accurately, it got around a long time ago, but people evidently still look at me and think, "Cancer."

I respond with the answer I've gotten used to giving, in recent months: I'm in remission, finished chemo a year ago, getting scans every three months – so far, so good. (I use a few more words than that to tell the tale, but that's the gist of it.)

My questioners smile, say they're glad to hear it, tell me I'm looking good. All very warm and supportive, in a casual, "Hey, I haven't seen you in a while" sort of way.

It's a story I've gotten used to telling. One of the life-skills you need, as a cancer patient in remission, is the ability to dispense a summary medical report in succinct, sound-bite fashion, at a moment's notice. Inquiring minds want to know.

I do appreciate the inquiries. It feels good that people remember, and remember to ask. I wonder how many prayer lists I must have been on, back when I was popping prednisone pills and had no hair. I wonder how long this earnest, supportive questioning is going to last – how long before people will look at me, and not think of me as that guy with cancer.

It may be a while.

If I'd been walking around, back then, on crutches, with my leg in a cast, the first word out of people's mouths when they see me, a year later, probably wouldn't be, "How's the leg?" Cancer's different. Once you bear that label, you're tainted. You become the subject of earnest entreaties, far into the unpredictable future. A broken leg will heal; everybody knows that. But cancer? It continues to stalk its victims, its hollow footfalls sounding at a distance. Look back over your shoulder, and you see nothing . But, take a few more steps down the deserted sidewalk, and you hear those footfalls again – or do you?