Monday, November 3, 2014

On Illness

I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer back in April of this year. To say this came as a complete shock is both an understatement and a cliché. The simple truth is that I turned 40 in January, and was advised to have my first mammogram. I did, and modern technology found a lump buried so deep that it would have killed me before I ever discovered it on my own.

The rest of the year has passed slowly in a blur of surgeries and chemotherapy, as my wee toxic lump was removed and the resulting conclusion—that it was a dreaded form of breast cancer known as “triple negative”—dictated aggressive treatment, despite the fact that my tumor was very small and did not affect my lymph nodes. Still, the prognosis is optimistic, and I am more grateful than ever that I didn’t put off that mammogram. Otherwise, I might still be blissfully germinating a malignant tumor, none the wiser.

Over the past few months, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the Bigger Issues that relate to this experience: life and death, fate, luck, gratitude. Illness and health. Strength and weakness. What strikes me is that these are the issues I grapple with most often in my fiction. One of the central questions of the Song series is that of fate and choice: do we choose our path, or is it chosen for us? Until that mammogram in March, I would have said the latter. Now, after having undergone a routine medical procedure spur of the moment simply because there wasn't a line to check-in (what I have discovered since is an extremely rare occurrence) I’m not so sure. What stars aligned perfectly to drive me to the mammogram counter that particular day? Was it a deity? The universe? The Force? 

I have also noticed the general lack of illness in fiction, which intrigues me. I admit that beyond the occasional sniffle or magic-related sickness, my characters just don’t get sick. Aside from a general plague or two, I’m not seeing it commonly in other fiction, either. There are a variety of possibilities as to why, beginning with the notion that heroes and heroines are strong of body and mind, which must naturally come with stellar immunity. Perhaps writing about a character’s cold, from which they will most likely recover, isn’t necessary or interesting. Maybe it isn’t important to the story, and like going to the bathroom, doesn’t need to be discussed. 

All good possibilities, but what this last year has taught me is that most of us shy away from serious, long-term illness. We don’t want to have it, see it, or acknowledge it. Illness makes us feel helpless, out of control. It forces us to face our own mortality and limitations. It changes how we see ourselves and the world, and it alters how others see us. Serious illness changes our expectations for ourselves and for others. It shows us what we and our friends, family and acquaintances are made of. We shy away from writing about it and we don’t want to read about it. Most certainly, none of us want to live it.

But failing to acknowledge illness drastically limits our perspective. Illness breeds strength, although it isn’t the strength we normally associate with our heroes and heroines. Illness brings out an inner strength, a kind of enduring grace and dignity, a willingness to get up each morning despite the nausea and the pain and just make it through the day. This kind of strength cannot be tested by anything else; there are no dragons to fight here, just a silent, patient enemy that can only be bested by outliving it another day. This is a strength born of stubbornness. A peaceful protest. No swords, just poison, pills, pillows and the will to survive.

Illness also teaches an abiding joy of the little things. I have learned to appreciate the small acts of generosity, the loyalty of truly selfless friends, the supportive words of strangers. My daughters laughing together. The slant of warm sunlight on a cool day. Hair. The ability to get in the car and drive to the grocery store all by myself. The million little things each day we all take for granted. Illness slows us down so much that we see and appreciate them all.

Cancer has given me an unexpected silver lining. I will be a better woman for this, and a better author. I will no longer keep my characters in perfect health when there is so much more for them to gain by more fully experiencing all there is to know and feel. They will become ill. They will grow. They will be strong.

~ Kim Vandervort


Terri-Lynne said...

You once again destroy me with words, Kim. And I mean that in the best possible way.
I love you. I love you.
"This kind of strength cannot be tested by anything else; there are no dragons to fight here, just a silent, patient enemy that can only be bested by outliving it another day. This is a strength born of stubbornness. A peaceful protest. No swords, just poison, pills, pillows and the will to survive."
This is going on my wall. I will read it every day. I am showing it to my son, who struggles daily to drag himself out of nausea every single day. He'll like this. Thank you.

Chris Gerrib said...

Kim - very well said, and that last paragraph is powerful indeed.

Diana Munoz Stewart said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Kim. I'm so glad that you are feeling better! I have held back from making my characters seriously ill, because I haven't lived through this kind of struggle, as you have, and so don't feel comfortable with representing it. I fear I might trivialize someone's illness. After all, sometimes people get sick, struggle mightily, and yet still die. As Eugie Foster did. I'm glad, though, that there are people like you who have gotten cancer and survived and who have earned the right to give voice to what that's like.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here...

Eloquent doesn't begin to describe the power of your post: honest, integral, inspired. You highlight one of the enduring lapses in what folks like to term 'escapist fiction'. In pursuit of our ideal we forget there is room enough and a need for healthy doses of the real. This rocked.

writerknv said...

Thank you, everyone, for the compliments. :)

Diana, I agree with you about not necessarily feeling comfortable representing illness. That makes a lot of sense. I know I didn't really even think much about it as a writer, and I probably didn't have the proper insight to do it justice in my fiction. But even having experienced illness from the outside can give a different perspective than the usual. I don't think any of my friends are unaffected by my illness. I knew Jay Lake and wish I'd known Eugie Foster, but seeing how they touched and influenced the lives of others also offers insight into the human spirit. I know Jay's fight influenced how I deal with my own. Even discussing illness from the outsider's perspective, from the loved ones and those left behind, can enrich our understanding of the human condition, I think. :)

Anonymous said...

Kim, thanks so much for this deeply moving and inspiring post.