For a small terrifying stretch of last month I was as sure as I’ve been of anything in my life that I had inflammatory breast cancer. I knew it like I knew the Democrats would lose the Senate in the election. (I work in politics.) (We lost by five seats.)
No type of cancer is good cancer, but as types of cancers go, inflammatory breast cancer is a special kind of bad. It spreads much faster than other kinds of breast cancers. By the time it’s detected, usually by a lump on the breast that is often initially misdiagnosed as a bug bite, it’s in the lymph nodes. Compared to other kinds of breast cancers, which have a five-year survival rate of 89%, it has a five-year survival rate of 40%. That is a clinical way of saying that if you get it there is a good likelihood it will kill you very soon.
I learned all these things because I read a lot about IBC over those days. I started calling it IBC in my head, the way you start creating mental shorthands for things you think will become a part of your day-to-day life.
Other things I learned:
- Apart from the terror and existential dread that you’d expect to feel, I was surprised that the main thing I felt was anger. I was so fucking angry. Over the last couple of years I’ve become happy in a way I’ve never been before in my life and honestly never thought I’d be, and to be this unlucky — to have my life end just as it got good — made me goddamn furious.
- I learned also that I was heartbroken in a specific way that, in retrospect, was clarifying. I always imagined that if I learned I only had a little while longer to live, I would regret not writing a book or in another way making my mark on the world or generally just not having more time to spend with my family or whatever. But it turned out I was mostly just overwhelmingly sad about not having more years, more time, more life, with the man I am in love with. (Boyfriend feels like an insufficient word.) One day we sat on a bench in a cold too-bright park talking about plans for a future I thought we might not have and I was viciously jealous of every older couple who passed by, resenting how much time they’d had that we would not.
- I learned more about how to be helpful to people who do get sick. I think one of the kindest things you can do is give people something else to think about. I watched about five hours of baseball with my friends one Sunday night and I could give a shit about baseball but it was exactly what I needed.
I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking again this week about this small and averted individual misfortune in the face of the huge tragedy that seems to be the general state of our world today — the cruelty, the almost hard-to-believe living bigotry. Maybe because it’s hard to imagine how we can teach other people to think about people who don’t share their own race or gender as human beings. It’s hard to imagine how we change institutions and systems that are rotten by design and designed to remain rotten. I won’t stop trying to do any small thing that could help. In the meantime I will hold the people I love as hard as I can.
This essay is an installment of the newsletter Everything Changes. You can subscribe here.