By Gwen Darien
Reflecting on Fear, Loss and Hope
By Gwen Darien
Maybe it’s that I turned 48 this past January, and as I get closer to 50, I can’t quite acknowledge that I might be middle-aged, after all of the unexpected life events that have brought me to this point. Maybe it’s that this year I’ve heard from two college friends to whom I haven’t spoken in a very long time, and I’m feeling the pull of time past. Maybe it’s that my mother turned 70 this year, and now both of my parents are in their 70s. But this year, some of the loss and fear I’ve experienced since my cancer diagnosis, 13 years ago, is more raw than it has been in the recent past.
There is real loss in these years—most acutely, the sudden loss of my fiancé to heart disease and the painful death of one of my closest friends to pancreatic cancer. And then, there is the loss of possibility. I was childless when I was diagnosed at 35. Though I love being an aunt to my niece and nephew, I’m not sure whether I would have had my own kids, if cancer had not gotten in the way. But as I see it, the disease took the choice away from me. There is, also, the loss of time, in what should have been a productive and happy period of my life. Unexplained and unnamed sickness, then diagnosis, treatment and recovery were the focus of my mid-30s.
Then, there is the fear. In “Negotiating the Landscape of Cancer,” Marnie Andrews describes the reaction of her husband, photographer and cancer survivor Jeff Jacobson, after he photographed a cancer treatment room for this issue of CR. “Afterward he called, upset and shaky,” she writes. “Even now, a year after his last chemo, it had come back, full-blown.” Likewise, for me, the fear sometimes comes back full-blown, even 12 years after my last treatment. My heart races every time I go to the doctor—any doctor. I can’t shake the feeling that the visit will turn up something terribly wrong and I’ll be put in the hospital just like I was 13 years ago. Periodically, out of nowhere, I’ll develop major anxiety about a minor symptom. And, recently, I’ve been ruminating on late effects of treatment, without any rational reason or symptoms.
Yet, fundamentally, I’m an optimist, as those who know me will attest. I look at the future and I see possibilities. And, I reflect on the past and think what an interesting and fulfilling, though sometimes difficult, life I’ve been living.
As Philip Roth wrote in The Dying Animal: “The loveliest fairy tale of childhood is that everything happens in order. Your grandparents go long before your parents, and your parents go long before you. If you’re lucky it can work out that way, people aging and dying in order….”
Of course, we know that this description is indeed a fairy tale—life doesn’t work this way and cancer certainly doesn’t obey this logical order. Andrews writes in her essay about a “balm of action.” In many ways, creating the article for this issue was just that for her and her husband: It demystified the landscape of cancer through photography for Jacobson and writing for Andrews. For me, the balm has been my work in advocacy, in the opportunity to integrate my background in contemporary art with a new challenge: creating magazines for people diagnosed with cancer. As Jacobson says of photographing the landscape of cancer, “It was awful, but it was also beautiful.” For me, his words precisely describe the experience of being diagnosed with and surviving cancer.