The language of survival tells us that there is no such thing as life after cancer. Even when it is gone, we carry on as if it might linger, knowing that what was invisible once might haunt us again. Survival implies endurance and endurance suggests that there is something we must endure. Living with cancer, then, entails living with the fact of cancer, living with the mere idea of it. That idea projects backwards in time as surely as it does forward, rewriting our old narratives. How long was I living with cancer before I was living with it?
In an early meeting, I asked my surgeon just that. She studied my chart for a moment. Given its size? Two years, maybe three. A vague figure, named so casually that I took it to be inconsequential at first. If it had been there that long and was still so small, the month between diagnosis and surgery presented no real danger. Only later did the weight of time begin to settle on my shoulders. Had it been there when I first met Mick? When Celeste and I broke up? Sickness bespoke a secret history, a story that shadowed my own.
The horror of cancer may always be partially retroactive. We worry first over what it did before we discovered it, how large it grew and how far it spread. Laying claim to time we had thought was our own, it lends a new meaning to the word disease: Diagnosed, we catch a glimpse of a figure that must have been watching us before we knew it was there, always hiding just out of sight.
It is, of course, only retrospection that summons up such specters. When we say that we are living with cancer, we typically mean that we are living in spite of it. Life itself turns antagonistic, becomes a running fight. There was, however, a time when we simply lived together. Until we met, my cancer and I were like roommates on different schedules, the one always waking after the other walked out the door. Illness is a domestic stranger. We do not play host to cancer so much as we unknowingly sign a lease with it.
After my first semester at Georgetown, I returned to Ithaca to teach two last classes. I took a room in an anonymous apartment building downtown where I was joined by a visiting British mathematician, pleasant enough but dull. Locked in our separate spaces, we would sometimes go days without seeing one another. Only the dirty dishes that would occasionally pile up in the sink reminded me that I was not entirely alone. That knowledge made me happy to wash them without complaint.
As the snow melted that spring, sea lampreys found their way up the shallows of Cascadilla Creek. Unimpeded, they soon established a spawning ground in the slow moving waters between Tioga and Aurora, mere blocks from my temporary home. Creatures out of another epoch, they seemed to change their shapes as I watched them from the sidewalk, serpentine bodies weaving against the slight current. A foot long, sometimes longer, and thick as gym class ropes, they evoked an atavistic dread. These, I kept thinking, were visitors from a forgotten past, a time from which we could only run.
I visited them regularly, keeping count of their numbers. As if to prove that I was not afraid, I occasionally scrambled down the embankment to examine them from the water’s edge. By day they were stationary, sleepless sentinels under the sun. Like all monsters, they were invisible at night, but sharp splashes would sometimes cut through the evening silence. They stayed in town as long as I did. We were both gone by midsummer.
An invasive species, sea lampreys threaten to wipe out all other fish throughout the region. Theirs is a parasitic form of life so prolific as to threaten those on whom they prey. Holding tightly to a thing, they literally drain it of life, gradually emptying the bodies of water that they fill. Mindlessly predacious, they aspire to their own annihilation. Thinking of them now, it is tempting to compare them to the cells that were multiplying within me as I studied them. And yet their story is farther from illness than it is from my own behavior. They kill the things to which they cling, much as I was killing myself by clinging.
Lampreys lose their teeth in the spawning season, leaving empty circles in the place of spiked maws. They latched onto me all the same, holding on in the way that nightmares do before the first cup of coffee. After my departure, I likewise held to the place I had left and the life I was losing, clamping down with my teeth as new currents pulled me downstream.
My grip failing, I floundered in the months that followed, unfair to myself and crueler to others. When I could, I composed long letters to the friends I had left in Ithaca, rendering the mundanities of my life in the District as richly as I could, seeking to close the gap between here and there. In a conversation with Celeste, I worried aloud that I was made entirely of sorrow. My psychiatrist, in plainer style, but with a professional commitment to paradox, simply wrote, Patient presents with minor major depression. These feelings were not entirely new, but Ithaca had held them at bay in its constancy. Inconstant now, I felt for a time that I was drowning.
I carried a constant with me through all of this, though I did not know it at the time. Today, illness inscribes itself over that narrative, my departure from Ithaca made darker by the shadow of a cancerous cloud. But that it does so need not produce terror. To the contrary, I take strange comfort in the knowledge that something joined me on one side of my sorrowful season and did not leave me until another had arrived. Cancer sat with me in the way that Catherine would when we learned it was there, persistent even in silence. So, if I must always live with cancer, I would prefer to dwell on the ways it kept me company, on the ways that we have already dwelt together.
Months after my surgery, I dreamed that my tumor was still with me. In the dream it had become something else, no longer cancerous. No friend, it was not a monster either. It was just a lazy roommate, its unwashed dishes slowly accumulating in the sink.