Living With Cancer: Curses and Blessings by Susan Gubar

“She Was Devastated When the Doctor Told Her It Was Malignant. Her Life Was Changed Forever. She Would Never Be Able to Retrieve That Life Before Cancer.”
“She Was Devastated When the Doctor Told Her It Was Malignant. Her Life Was Changed Forever. She Would Never Be Able to Retrieve That Life Before Cancer.” Credit Painting by Hollis Sigler, 1994.
Like someone with bipolar disorder, I see-saw between irritability and elation, depression and euphoria. As a cancer patient, I cycle through curses and blessings at a hectic rate.

During long stints in the hospital, I brooded over the blight cancer and its treatments cast upon my spirits. I fumed while waiting or furiously called again for nurses to deal with a malfunctioning machine. When they arrived to fix the problem, an overwhelming sense of relief tripped me into extravagant and tearful hymns of praise.

Outside the hospital, a spasm of hostility toward the healthy can sink me into the ultimate degradation of sickness: its knack for instilling spitefulness. The sight of undergraduates playing soccer on a sunlit quadrangle or of runners sprinting down the street fills me with jealousy at their unmarred, whole and wholly functioning bodies. A dog snoozing on a sunny porch or a deer startled into a leaping prance across a meadow: How can they be at home in the flesh and in the world when I am not?

The real horror lies within, in my capacity for bilious envy. Why am I scared and scarred, when all those others are not? Why am I positioned toward a dire future when all those others take for granted the pleasures of the present? Why am I fulminating about a friend who has neither phoned nor visited? Nasty side effects of cancer, malice and venom, must not poison my days I determine over and over again.

On the other hand, the cessation of pain or of baleful side effects produces wonders like nothing else. I marvel at the hot water of a shower or the melodious sonata on a CD. I say, “Thank you, deer,” when I see a deer, “Thank you, dog,” when I see a dog and “Thank you” to another friend who does phone or visit. Often, I stand in awe of the moon in the night sky struck dumb with its beauty. And this month, regardless of the blood marker, I will give thanks to the lightning bugs, because who would not want to thank each and every lightning bug?

My skeptical soul feels inundated by the sort of awe one can only name reverence for the universe. As Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer, put it: “Who cares if there was really any Being to pray to? What mattered was the sense of giving thanks and praise, the feeling of a humble and grateful heart.”

Dr. Sacks, who recorded his heavenly highs and hellish lows in “A Leg to Stand On,” believes that those with a disability often oscillate between grateful rejoicing and bitter denouncing of their circumstances. The same dynamic may hold true for cancer patients. So how does one sustain the joy while avoiding the rancor?

There can be no simple answer, but I seek clues in works of art created by terminal cancer patients. Take, for example, the paintings of Hollis Sigler, which have been shown in hospitals across the country and collected in the volume “Hollis Sigler’s Breast Cancer Journal.”

Ms. Sigler’s pictures refuse to gloss over the loneliness of cancer — rarely are there human figures in them. We see the resulting losses of disease in shattered mirrors, tattered dresses, empty rooms, barren trees and threatening wind and fire storms. She depicts a shocking lack of control in a painting with food and silverware unexpectedly flying from a table in a tornado of debris. The image reminds me of Dr. Benedict B. Benigno’s perspective on cancer: “If life is a banquet, then cancer takes away the knife and fork and pulls the chair out from under us.”

“There is Much That We Do Not Control.”
“There is Much That We Do Not Control.”Credit Painting by Hollis Sigler, 1993

To document the ravages of metastatic breast cancer, Ms. Sigler, who died of the disease in 2001, used spacers between frames for prose on the dire statistics and facts she had learned. On the edges of the paintings, she recorded additional words from her journals and those of the poet and breast cancer activist Audre Lorde. Bitterness and rancor certainly get expressed in these testimonies, but righteous rage is channeled toward the real enemies: the absence of a cure, the lack of preventive measures, inadequate detection tools, degrading and injurious treatments, miserable mortality rates, contaminants in the environment. Oh, and did I mention inadequate detection tools?

Yet the storybook colors of the most disturbing pictures blaze with a joyful vibrancy, a childlike spontaneity conveyed by a faux naïve style. In “She Was Devastated When the Doctor Told Her It Was Malignant,” the legs of the empty chair bow under invisible pressure as the floor beneath it buckles into what threatens to become a sinkhole. Spidery crack lines fissure the claustrophobic room. But the curtains wave in a breeze and above the verdant green wall a picture window opens on a streaky sunrise or sunset.

Often framed within their frames by what looks like quilted fabric, the brightly patterned images glow with the painter’s love of the life she knows she will soon have to leave. Not repressing but directing her anger, Ms. Sigler managed, through her dazzling artistry, to contest and revise the poet W. H. Auden’s advice: “Let your last thinks all be thanks.”


Susan Gubar is a distinguished emerita professor of English at Indiana University and the author of “Memoir of a Debulked Woman,” which explores her experience with ovarian cancer.

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