In my fantasy game of “Jeopardy,” I choose “Diseases No One Wants” for $200. The clue reads, “Cancer.” I buzz in immediately. “What is the disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells?” Alex Trebek knowingly nods his head as he replies “correct.”
I move onto “Side Effects” for $400. The clue pops up: “Nausea, Fatigue and Anxiety.” I buzz in again. “What are common side effects of chemotherapy?”
Next up “Stupid Platitudes” for $600. I’ve hit on the daily double and must decide how much I’m willing to wager. What do I have to lose? I’ve already come this far. I put it all on the line. The clue: “You’ll beat this thing because you are a fighter.” I smile at the inanity of the remark, “What is a ridiculous cliché most cancer patients will hear from a well-meaning friend or relative?”
I have good cause for feeling as if this episode of “Jeopardy” is a rerun. Eighteen years ago, I had breast cancer. This time around, it is lung cancer. Might this qualify me as a contestant for “Double Jeopardy?”
Daniel S. Chen, oncologist and chief medical officer of the Stanford Cancer Center wrote, “There are few things harder than getting a diagnosis of cancer. But one of those things is thinking that you’ve beaten cancer, and getting the diagnosis again.” Truer words have never been spoken.
As this is my second appearance on “Cancer Jeopardy,” I feel like I should be more knowledgeable. Either I am slow on the uptake, or there is an endless amount of information to learn. I’ve already covered radiation and chemotherapy. Next up: immunotherapy, periodic CAT scans and worry.
I naively thought that with my hair coming back, life would get back to some semblance of normal, as I’m sure Trebek thought, when doctors told him in August his pancreatic cancer was responding well to treatment. He’s since been told he’ll have to go back for another round of chemotherapy.
I am grateful to feel better physically, but emotionally, it has been more of a struggle. For a portion of every day, I feel as if I am running on empty. Because I am. What I lack in bravado, I make up for with vulnerability. I am one big pool of vulnerability. I swim in it daily.
When I shared my difficulty returning to civilian life with my cousin, Jeff, he sent me a text that put it all in perspective: “That old cliche that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, actually doesn’t work, because it is both. You just went through the sprint and now you face the marathon. You can expend the energy short term, but now you are expected to sustain that energy over a longer period. If it wasn’t that you have no choice, it would be impossible.”
I recognize this isn’t the most uplifting treatise on life with cancer. But I’ve read enough “cancer made me a better person” or “how I learned to embrace life through tragedy” essays to last a lifetime. Whatever floats your boat, but these messages don’t resonate with me. I was happy enough with my life BC (Before Cancer). Years ago, I read Miriam Engelberg’s graphic novel, “Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person.” This is a title I can embrace.
The word “jeopardy” is defined as “in danger, in peril, at risk.” With my Stage IV diagnosis, most days it’s hard not to think of my life as a full-time contestant wagering it all on the luck of the draw.
I know I need to learn to pace myself. Not expect too much too soon. But oh, how I miss my old self, the energetic and hopeful person I once was. As I slowly regain my stamina, I’m heartened to find there are occasions I am able to perform my little happy dance. It is nice to know I still remember the moves.
The “Final Jeopardy” category is Carole King songs. I stake it all. “This Top 10 hit from 1971 is a cautionary tale about slowing down.” I happen to have some firsthand experience on the subject. I know every lyric to this song because I’m living it.
I scribble my answer: “What is ‘It’s Going to Take Some Time’”?
Debby Tepper Glick is a writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.