Because of my involvement in the cancer community, I’m the frequent recipient of unsolicited emails or Facebook invitations, all dealing, to a greater or lesser degree, with cancer, whether one individual’s journey or a cancer support organization. Despite my work, I sometimes feel inundated by the amount of unsolicited requests I receive. Occasionally, however, I stumble onto a treasure. A few years ago, I received an email from Sister Anne Higgins, the author of a 2007 book of poetry and blog site, both entitled Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky. I was intrigued and explored her writing, discovering a beautiful blend of narrative, photographs and poetry. She later sent me several of her poems, written during her cancer treatment, and one in particular, “At the Gettysburg Cancer Center,” triggered memories of the experience I had several years before. It begins, “Here is the club you never want to join…”
I remembered a telephone call I received from a cancer survivor shortly after I was first diagnosed and scheduled to begin seven weeks of radiation therapy. “You’ll find you belong to a private sorority,” she said, “one you never knew existed until now.” While I appreciated her call, I certain I didn’t want any membership in that “private” club. Never a joiner during high school and college, I assiduously avoided campus clubs and sororities. This time, however, it turned out I didn’t have a choice.
I existed in a state of denial for weeks, refusing to accept that life had forced me into the cancer club. It was only weeks later, in a summer creative writing class, that I acknowledged the fact of this new membership. Given the prompt, “the hospital corridor was dimly lit,” I began writing. “I turn left into the waiting room; a montage of faces greets me: men, women, a teenage girl, a grade-school boy. Some with hair; others without. We are all members of a private club. We meet each day at 3 p.m., wearing the pale blue hospital gowns, the uniforms of anonymity, as we sit in silence…”
How many times have you felt forced into circumstances—those unwanted “clubs”—by what life deals us from its deck of cards? Joan, a former writing group member in treatment for kidney cancer, described the shock of being dealt the cancer card:
Two cards down. Two more dealt and…the wild card, stark in your hand…the cancer card…you want your discard back; you want to fold…you were so certain you didn’t belong here, in this neighborhood, playing cards, but Oh-Yes-You-Do.
Cancer is one of the life cards we don’t want to be dealt, just like job loss, trauma, heart attack, or sudden death of a loved one—the list is long. We object to memberships or labels we didn’t choose: cancer survivors, heart patients, war veterans, single parents, homeless, refugee, widows or widowers, living with disabilities, parents of children with developmental delays or special needs…and more. We don’t want to join these clubs, but we sometimes find ourselves thrust into them and do our best to deny the labels we’ve been given, like “cancer patient.” Labels make us feel exposed, as if we’re different, not the people we’ve always been. Molly Redmond describes these feelings in her poem, “The Cancer Patient Talks Back:”
It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.
People invade—an assault of connections—
for reasons fair and foul.
Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.
The medical cadre too.
I am covered with fingerprints, with labels…
We protest, even deny we’re part of this new reality, as Kathleen Rogers’ poem, “A Woman Argues with the Casting Director,” portrays:
I don’t, don’t want the part.
I really don’t what this part.
I don’t, I don’t believe it will be glamorous.
It won’t be opera, no swooning diva,
No Violetta, no burst of aria…
I told you—didn’t I tell you?—
I don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t want
(Poetry from: The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol. 1, 2001, Karin Miller, Ed.)
There is a flip side to pulling the cancer (or another unwanted) card. While I remain uncomfortable with any attempt to be classified into different groups like cancer survivor, heart patient, or even senior citizen, there may be some unexpected benefits to having the unwanted cancer card, as some survivors have discovered.
When you go through the experience of fighting cancer,” Jamie Bendola wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post article, “it is most likely the hardest thing that you will have to do in your life. It’s like a marathon (if marathons included surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy), but at the end there’s no shiny medal to hang around your neck.”
“You do, however, get to pull the “cancer card… I’m not saying you should cut people in line at the movie theater and say, “Well I had cancer so you can just wait behind me…” It doesn’t work that way. There are certain times though when you can pull this card for your benefit… different grants you can apply for, medical programs, etc. When I had to have a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy performed last year, I pulled the cancer card and all of my procedures were covered by Susan G. Komen.”
Susan Guber, writing in the “Well” blog of the New York Times, pointed to stand-up comedian Robert Schimmel, a cancer survivor, speeding to the hospital with his wife, when a policeman stopped them. “Mr. Schimmel imagined what the officer was thinking: “Damn. This guy looks like,” followed by an expletive. “What if he’s dying, chemo’s his only hope, and he misses his treatment because I’m writing him a speeding ticket? I might be costing him his life. Do I want that on my head? That could send me straight to hell.” Cancer lets Mr. Schimmel off the hook; it is “the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card.”
Guber continues: “Many people living with cancer use it as a ticket to reform their lives, for example, by delegating stressful responsibilities. It gives them permission to engage in productive enterprises like starting a walking regimen or volunteering for a patient advocacy group… The C card, for others, “stands for carpe diem. Whether you love fly-fishing, pedicures, rock music, photography, Bora Bora, playing with the dog, drinking, bowling, or bowling while drinking, after a cancer diagnosis you may finally find the time to follow your desires.”
Guber offers us something to think about. You don’t have to be forced into any “club” because of the C-card. As unwanted and difficult as it may be to be dealt a bad card from the deck of life, what matters is what you do with it. As Randy Pausch, former professor at Carnegie Mellon, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, famously said, “It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.” (The Last Lecture, 2008)
- Write about the time life dealt you the cancer card or some other unwanted hand. Explore the experience, how it felt, how you first reacted, and what you did with your new “membership” in a club you never asked to join.
- How have you played the hand you’ve been dealt? What advice do you have for others who have been dealt “bad” hands in life?