I am frequently asked “what do you do?” That is always a hard question for me to answer, because what I do is a function of who I am. To understand what I do is to understand what makes me tick. What drives me. Who I love. What makes me put the gloves on. I put the gloves on because I have been provoked.
I have been provoked by the “Emperor of All Maladies,” cancer. I have not just been provoked by cancer. I have been provoked by its consequences. I have been provoked not just because it led to me losing the love of my life, Maureen, on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. I have been provoked because of what it did before that. What I do is a function of how I have been provoked.
I have written a lot about our story, about the love of my life, about Maureen choosing to be a survivor and not a patient, about the amazing courage of my wife to live life to the fullest in the midst of great fear. I have written these stories, because as I said in one of my early posts late last summer, this was to be our story, not cancer’s. However, to make clear what I do and why I do it, I am about to speak in very stark terms about cancer. I will admit that I have been afraid to do this for some time. I’m scared of the emotions I have suppressed so that my love for Maureen can shine clearly, however, I have been provoked. I must speak. And, I must speak clearly.
On Saturday, we lost another very public figure to cancer, Stuart Scott of ESPN. However, on Friday night, as the kids and I were cooking some Chicago-style pizzas, I received news from a dear friend that her husband, who had fussed with cancer a year ago, was dealing with a metastases to his lungs. They are making big decisions on treatment now. Later that same night, I received another Facebook message from another friend. She had just attended the funeral of a lifelong friend who had battled breast cancer for 9 years, similar to Maureen. This diagnosis and this passing remind us that cancer knows no boundaries. Public, or private, it is taking away real lives, as well as the stories never to be written because lives are interrupted by treatment or worse taken by the consequences of cancer.
I have been provoked. I have been provoked because at the same time we heard the heartbeat of our now 10 year old daughter in Maureen’s womb, we also got the biopsy results of her breast cancer. I have been provoked because to get rid of this cancer we had to carve into the beautiful body that God granted to Maureen. We give it the fancy name mastectomy, but let us make no mistake. A knife is still a knife. Stuart Scott didn’t just have his appendix removed. He had cancer carved out from inside of him. Steve Jobs had to have his liver replaced because of cancer. It is not just the treatments that provoke me but the emotions. Cancer is downright scary. It is always lurking, furtively, waiting to escape in some new way.
I have been provoked because I’ve watched cancer in the faces of too many people in too many waiting rooms at too many oncologists at too many cancer centers. I’ve watched cancer in the faces of all that attended Maureen’s services and the services of too many others in our small St. Andrew’s Episcopal School community. As our priest said at Maureen’s services, “cancer sucks.” It does, and I have been provoked. I have been provoked because I love Maureen, and I had to watch the slow march of the consequences of a tumor in her brachial plexus under her right arm pit. An arm that she could slowly not lift because the nerves stopped working. An arm that slowly “inflated” (lymphedema) because the fluids could not escape past the tumor. An arm that she could no longer use to drive. An arm that she could no longer use to sketch… to be an architect. To be Maureen.
I could be angry. I choose to be provoked. To be angry would mean that all of my actions would flow from hate, my hate for cancer. To be provoked means that all of my actions, “what I do,” can flow from love, my love for Maureen and quite frankly my love and empathy for all who are dealing with this disease. I have been provoked. We all must be provoked. We have to allow the hard emotions to flow, so that we realize that our “war on cancer” needs new terms of battle. Like MD Anderson Cancer Center, I worry that these battle-laden terms are distracting, but I use them consciously here, because I have been provoked. We have to rethink the fight with cancer, and in the process, we may just uncover new ways to do a whole lot of other things as well.