I’m twenty-nine and dating a man that I adore; we’re planning to move in together soon. I have a stable job that I hate, but I hope that I’ll one day find something I enjoy. I have family and friends and hobbies and interests and love. So much love. And I’m desperately afraid that I’m going to have cancer.
I’m terrified that sooner or later, I’ll be diagnosed. My mother had breast cancer when I was in college. She survived hers, but in some ways, she didn’t. It broke her, Sugar. My father died of liver cancer when I was in high school—he was never lucky enough to be counted “a survivor.” My grandmother had a brain tumor when I was a newborn; she didn’t live to see my first birthday. As much as I take care of my health, as much as I try to be careful, I have this niggling doubt that my genes are setting me up for failure.
I know you can’t tell me whether or not I will have cancer, and I know you can’t tell me when. But what I’m struggling with—what I need help figuring out—is how to make the decisions in my life while keeping this possibility in mind. You know the decisions I mean: The Big Ones.
How do I decide whether or not to get married? How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it? I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself? How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through? How do I prepare myself?
Scared of the Future
Dear Scared of the Future,
There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth.
Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in ration and reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?
Is there credible evidence that my friends secretly don’t like me very much or were they all simply deep in conversation when I walked into the room and it took them a beat to say hello? Was the acquaintance who said, with class sizes that big, I’d never send my son to public school, actually saying that I was a second-rate mother, recklessly destroying my children because there are thirty kids in their classes, or was she simply sharing her own complex parenting decisions with me? When I receive letters from people who disagree passionately with a particular piece of advice I’ve given in this column is it true that it would be absolutely impossible for every reader to agree with me on every point or that I’m a stupid piece of know-nothing shit who should never write again?
If you asked me to draw a picture of myself I’d draw two. One would be a portrait of a happy, self-confident, regular-looking woman and the other would be a close-up of a giant gaping mouth that’s ravenous for love. Many days I have to silently say to myself: It’s okay. You are loved. You are loved even if some people don’t love you. Even if some people hate you. You are okay even if sometimes you feel slighted by your friends or you sent your kids to school someplace that someone else would not send her kid or you wrote something that riled up a bunch of people.
I have to cut the crazy lady to the quick rather often. Over the years, my emotional well-being has depended on it. If I let her get the upper hand my life would be smaller, stupider, squatter, sadder.
So will yours if you let it, sweet pea.
You have my deepest sympathy and my most sincere understanding, but you’re not thinking clearly on this. You’re granting the crazy lady way too much power. Your sorrow and fear has clouded your ability to be reasonable about your mortality. And if you continue in this vein it’s going to rob you of the life you deserve—the one in which your invisible inner terrible someone finally shuts her trap.
You do not need to look into your lover’s eyes and “explain to him what he might have to go through” should you be diagnosed with cancer. Tell him about your family’s experiences with cancer and about how you made it through those difficult times. Share your fears with him, and your grief. But don’t make the illogical line from your relatives’ real illnesses to your nonexistent one. Only the crazy lady is pretty convinced you’ll get cancer and die young. All the rest of us are entirely in the dark. Yes, you need to be aware of your risks and monitor your health, but do so while remembering that in most cases a genetic history of any given disease is only one predictor of your own likelihood of getting it.
Any of us could die any day of any number of causes. Would you expect your partner to explain what you might have to go through should he die in a car accident, of heart failure, or by drowning? Those are things that could happen too. You are a mortal being like every human and June bug, like every black bear and salmon. We’re all going to die, but only some of us are going to die tomorrow or next year or in the next half century. And, by and large, we don’t know which of us it will be when and of what.
That mystery is not the curse of our existence; it’s the wonder. It’s what people are talking about when they talk about the circle of life that we’re all part of whether we sign up to be or not—the living, the dead, those being born right this moment, and the others who are fading out. Attempting to position yourself outside the circle isn’t going to save you from anything. It isn’t going to keep you from your grief or protect those you love from theirs when you’re gone. It isn’t going to extend your life or shorten it. Whatever the crazy lady whispered in your ear was wrong.
You’re here. So be here, dear one. You’re okay with us for now.