[It's a year this week since I finished 'active' cancer treatment (though I'll be on hormonal medication for years to come). Wanting to reflect on this milestone, the following is what came forth. Warning: it contains spoilers about The Sopranos!]
Leaving my home, job and loved ones on short notice so that my husband could take up a work opportunity in Darwin, it felt like my little car in the Game of Life had hit a patch of ice. On being diagnosed with an aggressive case of breast cancer a short time later, my once reliable vehicle skidded into a ditch, flipped over and caught fire.
After the first two operations it was time to move on to chemotherapy. I arrived at hospital for my first treatment carrying a laptop, headphones and series 1 of The Sopranos. Six chemo sessions, each three weeks apart, six Sopranos series – it seemed meant to be. I developed a ritual in which I started a fresh series at each appointment, polishing off the remainder at home in time to begin the next series in The Chair three weeks later. While I was keen to experience a much-lauded tv show, as a mum from the Australian suburbs I didn’t expect that The Sopranos would have great personal resonance. I hadn’t bargained on series six.
As the final series opens, mob boss Tony Soprano lies in a hospital bed. He has been shot in the abdomen, sepsis has set in and the doctors are pessimistic about his chances of survival. After a vivid dream in which he is living a different, law-abiding man’s life, he regains consciousness. Moved by his experience, he resolves to change, declaring, “From now on, every day is a gift.”
Beset by his usual stresses, however, it soon becomes apparent that lasting change is going to be very difficult for Tony. As he remarks to his therapist in frustration: “Every day is a gift, but why does it have to be a pair of socks?”. Soon he is indulging in behaviour that breaches his warped but previously inviolable moral code. He gambles, uses drugs and acts viciously towards members of his extended family. Failing to change for the better, he changes for the worse – like a reformed alcoholic who has one drink and then decides that he might as well go on a week-long bender. There is debate about the famously ambiguous ‘cut to black’ final scene of The Sopranos, but my interpretation was that Tony had been the target of a hit, his family bearing witness to his murder. For a bandana-clad viewer, the series contained a chilling moral: he who squanders the gift of a spared life shall suffer damnation - and bring misery to those who love him.
The notion that cancer’s life-threatening nature creates impetus for sufferers to change their lives for the better was a recurring theme of the pamphlets, books and websites that crossed my path after diagnosis. Even the most measured ‘official’ materials bore this message. The National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre’s guidebook told me that women can find breast cancer “gives them a new perspective”, “makes them re-think what’s important” and “provides opportunities they would not have considered before their diagnosis”. According to the Breast Cancer Network of Australia, many of the changes I was likely to experience after breast cancer would be “positive...like reassessing what’s important in life.” These were just the broadly distributed publications endorsed by my medical team. Let’s not get started on the contents of an average bookshop’s ‘Health’ section, let alone the internet - or Livestrong.
With surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment behind me and my long-term outlook hopeful but uncertain, I waited for an epiphany. Instead, I found myself growing increasingly confused. Cancer discourse seemed to require contradictory things of me. That I change for the better, while not letting my essential self be changed and thus somehow ‘defeated’ by cancer. That I learn to live ‘in the moment’, while clarifying and achieving my goals. I found to my distress that answers to some of the ongoing struggles of my (admittedly privileged) life remained maddeningly obscure. How could I reconcile a thirst for change and adventure with a longing for proximity to loved ones? A desire for career progression with a desire to be at home with my kids after school? A yearning for creative expression with the need to earn a living? My ambition to learn the ukulele with the reading obligations for my book club? Even with Principal Cancer blowing the whistle, my priorities jostled and shoved one another instead of falling into an orderly queue. My “new perspective” still unclear, and unable to stop sweating small stuff, I appeared to be failing Life Threatening Experiences 101. Soon bad habits started to re-emerge (some of those disorderly children had got tired of waiting and were sneaking off behind the bike sheds for a smoke). Nearly a year after finishing treatment, it seemed that I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that I still liked eating ice cream and frittering away time on the internet while I thought about it. How could I maintain the sense of urgency created by fright? Would I emerge from my cancer experience transformed and thus redeemed, or would I be a wishy-washy Mrs Flitcraft?
In The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett tells the story of Mr Flitcraft, a prosperous real estate agent from the suburbs of Tacoma, Washington who never makes it to his four o’clock golf game – or home to his loving wife and children – after leaving his office for lunch one day. When Sam Spade tracks him down five years later, Flitcraft tells him that on the way to lunch a large beam had fallen from high up on a building site, crashing to the sidewalk close enough for a flying splinter to leave a scar on his cheek. With an intense flash of insight into the randomness of existence, Flitcraft had decided that he must overturn his orderly life. He had left town that afternoon and boarded a boat to San Francisco. By the time Spade finds him, however, he has settled back into a moderately-sized city in Washington State, started a car dealership, married a woman very similar to his first wife and had another child. Spade concludes with affection, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
On reading this tale in the wake of cancer treatment – Tony Soprano fresh in my mind - I initially saw Flitcraft as demonstrating a pathetic lack of imagination and resolve. Sure, unlike Tony he hadn’t killed anyone, but in failing to achieve lasting change in the face of death it seemed he had shown a similar weakness of character. The disdain in which his and Tony’s failures should be held was, I feared (looking down at my ice cream) only a matter of degree.
But now, some months later, I favour a more positive interpretation. Perhaps the tale of Flitcraft illustrates the folly of trying to deny one’s essential nature. Perhaps it shows that before the beam fell Flitcraft had been a shrewd judge of his own character, and had chosen a life that suited him well. After a period of confusion he had ultimately re-built something that most people would regard as a good life – family, diverting work, a comfortable home. Surely this can be read as a tale of success instead of failure? Isn’t there something praiseworthy in recognising one’s blessings and deciding to be content with one’s lot? Does lasting dramatic change require a significant level of dissatisfaction – a churlish state for someone with an enviably pleasant life that has (for the moment) been spared?
Despite my post-treatment confusion, I have managed some small changes. I’ve become involved in breast cancer support, and have enjoyed meeting others who’ve been grazed by falling beams. In person they don’t make me feel inadequate, and they tend to have wry senses of humour. I am also eating better. I often think of the Simpsons episode in which Homer escapes a predicted death-by-blowfish, and declares that he is going to change his life. As the end credits roll he is seen sitting happily in front of his television - eating light pork rinds.
As for sorting out my priorities, cancer-inspired clarity continues to elude me. But I’m working on it, mulling it over as I sit on the couch with my low-fat snack foods. I am trying to be patient with myself. I have come to appreciate the degree of difficulty involved in preventing a precariously-balanced beam from casting a shadow over my life, while letting the sight of my reconstructed breast provide a useful reminder of the graze on Flitcraft’s cheek. When searching for cultural touchstones I’m trying not to look to cancer literature (with its intimidating over-achievers), Tony Soprano (with his terrifying slippery slope) or Flitcraft (with his misjudged and short-lived change for change’s sake). My revised ambitions are modest. I’m aiming a little beyond Homer’s new pork rinds, and feeling an affinity with the female Simpsons. Right now, I’m a bit like Marge in the opening credits. My little car is back on the road, and while I may be a rather distracted driver I’m smiling a lot, and blowing my horn now and then just for the hell of it. A year out from cancer treatment, I reckon that isn’t too bad. I’m almost feeling ready to embrace Lisa as my next role model. I think of the way she twirls out of the classroom jamming on her sax, and decide that Principal Cancer should give me a respectable pass if I at least learn to play the ukulele.