“There is no goal, but only the path.”
Recently, my wife and I traveled with friends to Glacier National Park. Our journey through the Northwest included a stop at the classic Davenport Hotel in Spokane, WA. From there we visited historic lodges in Montana and Waterton Lake, Alberta. We dined in expansive dining rooms, day hiked around glacial lakes, and played cards in the grand lounges constructed from massive logs harvested a century ago.
One of our companions is a retired journalist. But the writer in her is still working. This summer she ruminated about the labels for our aging populace in an OpEd for the Seattle Times. Her main premise: “Language reflects what’s important to us and communicates our feelings as well as thoughts. And it’s always evolving.” With respect to words like elderly, older, and senior citizen, the aging labels “start feeling out of date or too confining.” People are living longer and their later years are more active and healthier. Accordingly, we need a vocabulary that speaks to the new realities.
So, too, the language of cancer evolves with improvements in quality of life and survival statistics. For example, I prefer the label “veteran” to survivor and QOL drives my choices in therapy, not lab results. Relapse, remission, chemo, and even the word cure have more nuance in definition than the same words of decades past. To these subtleties we can add concepts such as chimeric antigen receptor immunotherapy and monoclonal antibodies.
For me, things fall apart … and then they come together again. That’s been my experience living with cancer. The lesson, like a Buddhist riddle, is that nothing really gets solved. For many patients, the challenges come and go and then they come and go again and again. Me? I get better, then I relapse and then I get better. Right now, I’m good, and what lies ahead is, well … it will be different.
This coming December will mark ten years since I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. I expect to be here to celebrate the occasion. My disease, though evident in laboratory tests, persists in tenuous stability.
Furthermore, in my mind, the cancer, in spite of a rigorous ongoing treatment program, has achieved “a cured state.” I have doubled the original prognosis. And, as the patient, its my privilege to define the situation. Living these ten years with MM has been like having a long conversation with my body: my body on drugs; my body on aging; my body as a vessel of consciousness; my body as it used to be; and my body and the certainty of mortality.
I am held together periodically with neck braces, back braces, chemical poisons, uppers and downers, and the luck of having inherited a constitution that can tolerate treatment. I manage neuropathy, anemia, pain, and etcetera. Yet, like soft luggage, there seems to always be space for one more item. Whatever is next, I’ll try to make room for it.