Friday, August 22, 2008

My Own Private Terrorist Attack

A number of people have asked me if I feel like having breast cancer has given me a “second chance” at life. And certainly the “second chance” theme infiltrates so much of the literature about surviving cancer. It may just be a matter of semantics, but the very phrase “second chance” makes me quail. This may be, at least in part, because I’ve done a lousy job with all the second chances I’ve had in my life.

Anyone who thinks that second chances are precious, are rare, just hasn’t mastered the fine art of ducking out on things. I feel like I’ve had ample opportunity to reinvent myself throughout my life—new schools in childhood, new cities as an adult, college, career, divorce—and every time I’ve ended up tossed around, tumbled dry, and out the same imperfect soul. I’m not saying that Incarnation Number One of me was right from the very start; I’m suggesting that change isn’t my forte.

And “second chance” sounds so nigh-fatal, as though I wrested my fate as it dangled from the Scythe—Phew! That was a close one!

Okay, I don’t like to admit it, but in some senses that’s a little true. It’s just not true in that “right in the nick of time” sense. There was wiggle room, albeit not room for a big ol’ wiggle; my doctors weren’t gasping for breath and wiping their brows after my surgery—no high fives all around for defusing the C-bomb just before the ticker ran out.

Given my track record, this is better than a second chance, really. Having breast cancer carries with it not a clean slate, but one marked with a prescribed message.

Having breast cancer is like my 9/11. In the months following 9/11, everyone suddenly loved the United States. We were flooded in sentiment and affection. It didn’t matter what we were like on September 10; no one cared about that on September 12.

(You don’t have to agree with my politics to understand the analogy, but it helps).

I haven’t been offered a second chance with my diagnosis. It’s more like redemption, of a sort. I am awash in admiration and good will. There is this persona lingering in the periphery, a costume I could slip into if I wish.

Just two days after I shaved my head, a woman stopped me on the street to tell me how brave I am. And even though I’m only halfway through chemo so far, if I had a dime for every moment like that I’d have more than enough to buy a pack of cigarettes (A little dark cancer humor there). I am unwaveringly floored by the kind sentiments of strangers, but I’m no longer shocked speechless when someone says, “You go, girl!” when I walk by. When asked who her hero was on a college questionnaire, a student wrote that I was the bravest person she knew. “You’re gorgeous bald,” said a co-worker with whom I’d never shared a conversation before, “And you have to know that you’re sending such a powerful message to the girls you teach.” In the first four days back at work, I was given every compliment in the book by every manner of coworker—those who like me, those who didn’t, and those that never gave me a passing thought before. There are people praying for me that I’ve never met and probably never will. Even the grumpy guy who hadn’t spoken to me since last September shot me a smile in the hallway.

The post-cancer me is like the United States on September 12, 2001.

But this is not a second chance, not a blank slate. It’s a tremendous opportunity. Suddenly everyone thinks the world of me; where before was indifference is now admiration, where was dislike is now forgiveness. In everyone’s eyes I am a far better person than I was before cancer, and I didn’t have to do anything to earn it except keep showing up

But what did we do in the months following 9/11? And what did we do with all that love and goodwill? We squandered it. We blew it. We took advantage of the fact that the world felt sorry for us and used it as license to do unspeakable things. We blew it, post-9/11, or rather our government blew it for us. Imagine what the world would be like right now, if we’d spent the past seven years using our good stead with the world community to combat disease and poverty and environmental degradation. Imagine if we’d combined all the trillions of dollars we’ve poured into this ill-conceived war with all the support that was initially offered to us by the world community after the terrorist attacks. Our government turned away from perhaps the greatest diplomatic opportunity ever offered to this country.

I don’t want to be that same ninny. I don’t want to look back on this period in my life five years from now and think, “if I only had that same break again.” Please, God, I don’t want this same break again.

Can I be wiser than my government? Yes, I think I can.

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