I had an interesting conversation today with a man in his eighties diagnosed with lung cancer. He’s already lived a year with it, it’s a single small tumor that’s stayed the same size and even shrunk a bit with treatment. It hasn’t gone anywhere else. But he felt it was unfair that he had cancer, unfair it wasn’t going away with treatment, unfair that chemo made him tired. It was unfair he had lung cancer when he’d quit smoking many years ago. He was afraid of dying prematurely of cancer. He wanted me to reassure him he would be cured.
But he got 40 more years than I did cancer-free. He got to finish his life, raise his kids, fulfill his commitments and travel before he had to deal with a cancer diagnosis. A cancer diagnosis while in your mid-eighties didn’t seem so unfair.
I had to wrap my head around that a bit.
I read a book once, “The View From Eighty”, written by Malcolm Cowley, born in 1898. He had turned eighty and wanted to tell everyone what it felt like to have lived for eight decades. He said he still felt 25 until he stood up and noticed his body didn’t work so well. He said death and disease were never fair at any age; if you were 25, you thought 50 was old and death and disability could be expected at that age. But when you were 50, fifty was young; potential death and disability were decades away at age 70… until, of course, you turned 70. So my eighty year old friend probably thinks cancer and death should still be decades away, at 100 years old.
When I think about it, maybe some mother with a young child bald from chemo saw me at Sloan-Kettering at age 41. Maybe she thought how lucky I was to have lived for four decades. I’d made it to college graduation, marriage and had lived to get my first grey hair. I’d been able to have children. To her I’m sure I was the lucky one. She probably would have loved for her child to live to age 40.
I guess there is never a right or good time or age for cancer.
It’s never fair.