Living With Cancer: Tumbling Blocks

On a night several months ago, the digital clock blinked 11:53. My husband was asleep so I crept down the hall, only turning on a light when I got into my study. On a sheet on the floor were fabrics laid out for a new quilt in the tumbling block pattern. Pictures of my friends kept me company, but there was no photo of the woman over whom I was grieving.

One of my former graduate students was dying of lung cancer, and no, she did not smoke. Her name was Susan, too. In my email to her, I closed with “Susan2,” which quickly became “S2.” She signed “Susan Also,” which quickly became “SA.” Students are supposed to outlive their teachers.

SA had heard the sentence from an oncologist that I expect eventually to hear: “I have nothing else to offer you.” Weakened by metastases, she had asked her partner to call hospice for help at home.

SA is the third of my former graduate students to receive a cancer diagnosis. When many of them convened on the occasion of my retirement, one had already died in her 30s from breast cancer. A speaker invited to that event, a younger colleague from another university, could not attend because she was sick with what turned out to be endometrial cancer. Another who did attend has subsequently had to undergo surgery for ovarian cancer.

We Americans are assured by experts that cancer accounts for one of every four deaths because of our aging population. But these women, who led health-conscious lives, were all under the age of 65, as I was when I received my diagnosis. I gazed at a photograph on my desk of Ilinca, who died at 52. Could this epidemic, I wondered, be caused by hazardous additives in our food, pesticides in the air, soil, water or pollutants in our houses, parks, office buildings?

I remembered a few especially colorful plates in a graphic memoir called “Cancer Vixen,” which I found in a pile of books. Yes, there was the Post-it on the page where Marisa Acocella Marchetto has drawn a picture of herself alone at night in her study. She is considering “all the supposed factors” that may contribute to a breast cancer diagnosis — the pill, hormones in beef, dairy, and poultry, radiation, overeating. “This list could go on into infinity,” she writes. “What the hell are we doing to ourselves?”

On the bottom of the next full page, Marisa looks up from her drawing desk into a starry night in which crowds of children and adults speak to her from cloud banks. They identify themselves:

“We’re the women from Long Island. There was a breast cancer hot spot in Huntington.”
“In California, where I come from, they found brain cancer clusters.”
“15 of us come from South Jersey. They found waste products in our water.”
“Radioactive dust strayed from a nearby nuclear plant where I lived in Pennsylvania.”
“There was a leukemia cluster in Nevada where I lived, too. Jet fuel was dumped into our drinking water from the nearby naval base . . ..”

One speaker acknowledges that the links between these environmental issues and cancer was never proven, but their posthumous voices ask, “Aren’t we enough evidence?”

I closed the book, gazed at the tumbling block quilt on the floor, and then emailed SA, explaining that I could bring my quilting and sit with her. No need to talk. We might just keep each other company. Or she could snooze while I sewed.

The assembled blocks resemble cubes stacked up one on top of the other. Separated, each looks like what it is: three diamond swatches of different cottons. Pieced or sewn together, however, they become precarious steps, as if the removal of one would bring the whole structure toppling down, which of course it would if they were the real blocks children play with. Their interconnection makes the pattern.

I know that some cancers are caused by genetic mutations, others by reckless personal behavior. But it is not always enough to get the blood test or lay off cigarettes and red meat. We are all connected — as are our genes — within the environment we have made for ourselves.

In “The Cancer Chronicles,” the science journalist George Johnson argues that the appearance of cancer clusters is a “statistical illusion.” Still, why are the people I am thinking about so young, and why are there so many? This cannot, should not, be happening to my students.

When I got up to turn off the light, I remembered an assistant professor who enrolled in a faculty summer seminar with me decades ago. We were studying women writers, but she went on to investigate cancer prevention through environmental change — maybe because she had dealt with bladder cancer when she turned 20.

I determined to check out Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream” as I groped my way back to bed, not that her advocacy as a self-defined “carcinogen abolitionist” will salvage my beloved dying and dead. Those people cannot be pieced into the pierced pattern of my life.

May your memory be a blessing, dear Susan Moke.

Speak Your Mind

*