Thanks to my robust (and, compliments of the chemo, rotund) appearance these days, my friends and family who know of my diagnosis, which is actually a fairly small subset of such people, think that all must be well. As far as they can ascertain, I am back to my pre-cancerous self and as healthy as a slightly balding, glasses wearing, overweight-but-not (yet)-obese BMI scored forty-six-year-old can be. Of course, their ascertainment does not ever go beyond a cursory question or two, which is perfectly understandable. Nothing sucks the life out of a room like hearing someone talk about incurable blood cancer.
And yet, as those who have much familiarity with cancer “survivors” are aware, appearances can be quite deceiving. For many reasons. Since I put it in quotes above, let’s start with the first misnomer – the word survivor. I am not looking to upset anyone or challenge the cancer establishment (which does in fact exist), but I really am not sure I understand the usage of that term. It certainly is true that I am surviving, but does that make me a survivor? If I go swimming one time because I fell off a boat and had to keep from drowning but do not own a bathing suit, I am not a swimmer. I am just someone who did what he had to do because the alternative of not doing so was suboptimal. That does not make me an adherent to the activity, however, much less one who could be properly grouped under that heading.
Yet in the cancer community, which is simultaneously disturbingly large and comfortingly large, a survivor is anyone who basically has not died (yet) from cancer. It does not mean, however, as a lay person might suspect, that one is cancer-free. It also does not comport with other usages of the term. A survivor of the Holocaust was someone who against all odds lived through it; but thankfully it is over. A survivor of a plane crash was able to go on living but the event is now behind her. And a survivor on that TV show is an attention-seeker who is generally good looking, not terribly bright and seemingly without any real prospects. So the use of the term for those of us still living with cancer does not quite seem to fit. Mind you, I don’t have a better suggestion other than to maybe say that it is not something that can be reduced to one word. It’s kind of like Yiddish in that way – it requires more of an explanation than a term.
Of course one of the other difficult things that persists but is frustratingly not obvious to most is my lack of memory. I may have said this before (I can’t recall), but this difficulty within my cranium takes on many manifestations. I will share some, at least the ones I can currently recollect. One of these incessant hobgoblins is trying to remember the right choice in a binary situation. As an example, I often think of Jack Bogle (I don’t know why but I do), and yet as often as I have conjured up his name in the organ formerly known as my brain I cannot for the life of me remember if his surname begins with a “B” or a “V”. According to what I just Googled, it is with a B. But I just can’t remember it. If I didn’t have cancer and, more importantly, had not undergone chemo for it, I might think that this unresolvable confusion stemmed from some other reason. For example, Bogle was, for those who didn’t stop reading the above to Google him for themselves, the founder of Vanguard funds. Because B and V are similar in sound (although not at all in appearance when you think about it, which makes one wonder why that is), perhaps my mind is easily stuck on which is the right usage. I should also note that in Hebrew, a language I can read but which I cannot understand at all (which is an entirely different sort of crazy), the letters for the B and V sounds are identical, except for one has a tiny dot in it and the other does not. But I do not believe that my problem with Vanguard’s founder’s name stems from my bar mitzvah training.
Another set of issues that arise with my foggy brain has to do with remembering to do tasks that I do not wish to be doing in the first place. To my knowledge it has not presented grounds for malpractice so far, but I now occasionally completely forget to respond to a client’s email or phone call. Admittedly, I probably do not wish to be dealing with their legal woes anyway, but it is how I make my money so it is somewhat important. And yet I can’t remember that I ever received the call or email, much less that I need to return it. If any of my clients are reading this, you now know why your message from February has gone unreturned. Give me a call if you still have whatever issue – just don’t leave a message unless you want to wait until the next time I write a posting about memory loss to possibly hear from me.
Similar to work matters, I have noticed a high likelihood of forgetting events that involve extended family. Just two days ago, I asked Melissa if we had any plans for this weekend (which question betrays the degree of social butterflies we are). She said, “No, other than the family dinner Saturday night.” “What dinner?” I asked in complete amnesiac honesty. “We discussed this already,” she replied. Now while it is of course the case that a Saturday night spent with all of my in-laws would not necessarily be my first choice of things to do, I can honestly say that I had no idea whatsoever about this. I am starting to worry that Melissa thinks I am faking it to avoid doing things that I do not really want to do. I would try that but that would involve remembering the things I was trying to forget and that seems like too much thinking for me to carry out at this point.
Despite all of the cross looks, angry emails and exasperated reactions, there is one silver lining to having such a poor memory these days. As a compulsive worrier, by which I mean that upon waking each morning I go through a mental checklist of all of the things I am concerned about at that moment, a rather lengthy process but one which, if I may be so bold, shows a great deal of creative ability on my part, it is often debilitating to think about all of the matters over which I am uneasy. The chemo brain actually ameliorates this problem by erasing from my mind certain matters that would otherwise make the list, thereby lessening the cause of real and imaginary anxiety I conjure up constantly. Perhaps I finally understand why chemo is referred to as “therapy”.