Lynn Ruth Miller shares her 'cancer glossary'. This glossary is part of a series exploring people’s individual responses to cancer, commissioned by Theatre & Cancer author Brian Lobel. Find out more about the series.
When people look at me and think “OMG she’s going to die tomorrow. Not a chance she will ever get better” and treat me like I have ten minutes left on this earth. So they talk AT me instead of to me because they don’t think I have anything left to say anymore.
Useful cancer performances:
It really helps me to include reference to my cancer in my performances because I realize how lucky I am to be out of the woods and because I think when people see me, filled with energy and ambition and plans for my future, they stop believing that every cancer has to be a death sentence.
Desire to create a narrative:
I need to write about what has happened to me so I can process it. My cancer has created very few side effects and I made the decision not to take any preventative measures to keep it from recurring. I need to write about that for myself, so I understand that I alone and against all advice to the contrary, have made a definite choice to let my body heal itself in its own way. Should this cancer recur, as the medical professionals tell me it most certainly will, it is I who did not do what it takes to prevent that. It will be my fault and my responsibility to live with the consequences of my decision.
Once I realized it really WAS cancer, I was more motivated than ever to make the most of the time I had left. I was plagued with questions like, “What if it comes back?” or “How invasive a treatment am I willing to endure to extend my life?”. And then, “No matter what happens I need to make what life I have worth living.” And for me that was accelerating the career I love so much and enlarging my performance scope. That was when I began exploring doing comedy OUTSIDE of Britain. I had been doing comedy in Dublin for years but around the time that I knew I had an aggressive type of cancer, I expanded my touring to Berlin and then Prague, Amsterdam and Frankfurt and inevitably Southeast Asia. I stopped thinking that I would wait to be discovered and took active steps to make myself known. What had been a very casual career became an obsession. I do not want to die without making my mark as a performer and I do not want to endure extreme methods to heal the cancer. So now I have a time element….I have this urge to hurry up….I am determined to “make it” whatever that means.
I finally accepted that I really did have cancer and it was an aggressive type that needed to be addressed. The impact of how lucky I was to get out of danger so quickly was huge. I felt blessed in a way and very vulnerable in another. Until the tumor was discovered and removed, I was absolutely sure cancer was never going to affect ME. I made the decision to have no preventative treatment to keep it from returning and that was very scary. I only now realize that I made the right decision for me. My friend Paul had exactly the same cancer and because he had lots of money to spend, he decided to go private and literally do overkill to be absolutely sure HIS bladder cancer would never recur. Instead, the radiation ate a hole in his bladder and now he has a bag he must empty and tend to every day. That could have happened to me and could still if I made the wrong decision. So far the cancer has not returned. But I am never sure I am free from it. And that will haunt me for years to come.
No dispassionate audience members:
I am not happy with people who are over zealous about anti-cancer diets and exercise programs . They spend so much of their lives preventing something that has not happened, that they have no time to live. And I do not like people who insist that it is negative thinking that gives people cancer. It makes those of us who have had it feel it is our fault that we got it. I had cancer and I have a positive attitude. I take good care of myself. My tumor happened because of something in my body that I could not control. It could have killed me and all the happy thoughts and determination to be healthy had nothing to do with its removal. It was a scalpel that did it. Many of my friends who are also in remission have suffered terribly to get there. Cancer is not something to take lightly and I do not do that. I do not want anyone else to do it either. Once you have had it, you are aware of your own fragile hold on the life you have.
Staring and passing:
People tell me how lucky I am that I am cancer free when I know that it was the doctor’s insistence that something was wrong that saved me. I would have done nothing until it would have been too late. Luck had nothing to do with my remission. Then people tell me how good I look in spite of having cancer, meaning ‘you are an old bag but at least you don’t look like a corpse.’
Cancer stories without an ending:
Once you have that diagnosis, every time there is something abnormal in the way you function, you think it has come back or has spread to another part of your body. That confidence that “it could never happen to me” is destroyed. I am constantly watching for a sign that there is a growth anywhere else in my body, something I never even thought about until I was diagnosed.
Intersectional cancer stories:
Realizing that my being in a country that takes care of its residents’ medical needs is what saved me. If I had been in the United States, even with my insurance, I would have been economically destroyed with the co-payments and options for treatment that were not covered. I am checked every six months at no cost to me to be sure that I am cancer free. That is a privilege people who do not live in places like the UK do not have. Poor people without financial resources cannot protect themselves from recurrence as I can.
Seeing what I escaped (so far):
Every time I hear of what my friends are going through to fight their cancer or protect them from having it recur I get a frisson of fear and relief. So far I have escaped. But for how long?
I will never ever stop being thankful for the doctor in Brighton who went into my bladder and removed not just the tumor, but enough of the residue so that it did not recur. When the lab analysis came back it was obvious that the cancer was aggressive and dangerous, but that surgeon was so thorough that she removed all the cells that were malignant. All of them. I do not think I am being sentimental here. I am facing the truth of what happened and the odds that it did. The truth, which I had so much trouble admitting, is that I managed to avoid a terminal illness. Furthermore, although I avoided it, I have not eliminated its potential to re-occur and finish me off.
I was told I had cancer in September and they removed the tumor the following January. I can still remember telling the very well-meaning GP, “You are wrong. I am not the type to get cancer. It is a ruptured vein. I KNOW it.” When I saw the blood that would not stop coming out of me knowing it was the obvious evidence that I had cancer, I kept insisting it was something else and told the doctors I was sure they were wrong. Even when the doctor who went into my bladder told me that I had a growth there, I did not doubt for a moment that once removed, it would never come back. So far I have been right. But it was and still is denial just the same.
I keep thinking it was my fault that this happened. I could have avoided it if I had not signed on for a stressful and potentially disastrous move to another country. I KNEW that Bill Smith was unreliable. I KNEW that his word was meaningless because it had been so when he pulled out of the GRANNYS GONE WILD Edinburgh production, then zoomed in to demand total ownership after it won Best Cabaret of the Festival. Still, I took that chance and that decision created such immense stress that my immune system broke down (so I think). If I had stayed in the United States; if I had not risked everything to move to another country; if I had not trusted the man who hired and then fired me; I would not have had all the stress that (I believe) compromised my heretofore sturdy immune system. I keep telling myself that if I had been wiser and less impulsive, this would never have happened.
A portend of what’s to come:
This was a sign to me that I am finite. Somehow even at my age (85) I never absorbed the fact that that my days are numbered. When I got bladder cancer, all I could think of was ‘is this the first of many horrible things that are going to happen as my body falls apart and takes me closer to death?’
Once I was diagnosed and convinced that this was really cancer, I was furious. Furious at my body for letting me down; furious at fate for limiting my time on earth; furious at the events that caused so much stress that my body weakened and succumbed to the disease; furious because I didn’t want to get sick and I did. Absolutely furious.
And I was ashamed that I had gotten sick. I carry around an image that I am going to be fine no matter what happens. I am a big promoter of a positive attitude. I saw my mother live in fear of cancer from the time she was forty, so sure she would get it that she finally did when she was 70. Not me. I am not a hypochondriac. I do not believe in sickness. My mind heals me. I am always well. I am healthy. I am strong. And I wasn’t.
Featured image by Taylor Leopold. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.