epitaph for novelty

If you’ve been following my blog from the beginning, you’ve likely noticed that my posts have become less and less frequent. There is a very singular reason for this. When it comes to writing creative nonfiction, there are two types of experiences that ‘do it’ for me, that beg me to write: the big stories – the ones that I’ve fine tuned at wine-fueled dinner parties – and the brand new experiences. This is why, in my pre-cancer life, I really only blogged when I traveled to places that inspired that wide-eyed, childlike sense of awe. Whenever I’ve tried to write about the mundane day to day, self doubt and justifications have invariably found their way into my words. Who cares that you made yourself a perfect omelet and took Oscar to the dog park? Nobody wants to read this shit.

The truth of the matter is that having stage 4 cancer has lost much of its novelty. And this is why I’ve only been posting when my disease has taken a turn for the worse, or after a hospitalization, or when a treatment that seems to be working has offered me a newfound sense of hope. I didn’t even feel compelled to blog after my latest set of scans, because nothing really changed.  Sure, there were slight changes in the size of my tumors (two shrunk, two grew, which is considered ‘stable’ disease), but I had nothing new to say. This wasn’t a new experience for me. This is my world, now: treat, scan, find out I’m still not dying but I’m still not cured, rinse and repeat.

Part of the normalization of my life with late-stage cancer is that when people ask how I am, I automatically say, “I’m good” – it’s almost pavlovian. “I’m good” = happiness, relief. Anything other than “I’m good” = sadness, discomfort, fear. And who wants to evoke negative emotions in the people they love?  Also, when I say I’m feeling good, the line of questioning ends there and allows the exchange to take a natural, two-sided course. Responding with anything other than “I’m good” forces the conversation down a cancer-centric road, into a Jen-centric clearing. I’ve always been a bit of an attention whore, but attention garnered from, let’s say, playing the new song you’ve written and attention you receive from being sick beget two very different beasts. The former made me feel like a handsome cheetah racing across a sweeping landscape in a BBC documentary;  the latter makes me feel like an ill-fated puppy cowering on a patch of concrete in a late-night charity infomercial.

On the rare occasions that I do feel the need to discuss my disease with anyone other than my therapist, I find it difficult to communicate my thoughts and feelings properly. Because I’ve never been much of a spontaneous thinker, I wind up either being unceremonious or spewing out pre-packaged ideas. Basic, universal feelings have specific words assigned to them. The complicated network of feelings that come attached to a life-threatening illness do not. This is why my writing about cancer has been so heavily reliant on metaphors.

I once began a blog post with the sentence, “There are days when I forget that I have cancer.” This is no longer true. There are moments, sure. Sometimes even hours. But even the briefest allusion to any event that will take place more than three months in the future brings about a dark cloud. This is not to say that my life doesn’t continue to have great meaning. It does. I live each day as if I have a vast future ahead of me, and I still manage to find profound joy in my daily routine, in my relationships, and in my consumption of the world around me, but I do so with the pervasive knowledge that the odds are stacked against me living to a ripe old age. Last week, as I was reading the gorgeous cancer memoir “When Breath Becomes Air,” I came across a sentence that expresses this sentiment better than I am able to. Paul Kalanithi wrote, “The curse of cancer created a strange and strained existence, challenging me to be neither blind to, nor bound by, death’s approach.”

I know that some people very close to me will be inclined to see the morbidity in this quote, will hone in on the words “death’s approach.” And to those people,  I want to shine a light on the words “nor bound by.” I do not feel bound by death. I feel bound to life, which is why the threat of impending death is so very horrifying to me. My lament for the absence of novelty is tied to my personal writing – not to my whole person. I just want to be well enough to go out into the world and find newness that stirs my writing loins.  I do not wish for novelty in my disease, unless that means that some new breakthrough in treatment fashions a ray of light that can pierce the dark cloud. I await clear, blue skies with bated breath.

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6 Responses to epitaph for novelty

  1. Lisa Crandall says:

    I have been following your blog for quite awhile now. Having lived in the cancer world as a caregiver for over two years gave me a different perspective on life, almost a us and them perspective. Reading your words about how you felt compelled to say “i’m good” made me feel very sad for you in that you didn’t feel as you COULD talk to (your friends). I was/am the one who talked about cancer, read about cancer, found all the blogs, anything to give me perspective or new ideas. Even though it has been almost four years since my husband died I still am reading, researching anything I can. I always said to my husband, the next new treatment is right around the corner.

    I always hope that there is good news or stable news when I read a new entry. You have people out there who are listening, hoping and cheering for you. PLEASE always feel free to share your feelings with us, the good, the bad and the ugly. WE can listen to all of it!


    Liked by 1 person

    • lisa. sorry, maybe you misunderstood, but i have an amazing network of friends and family that i can and do talk to about my illness. i understand that they are experiencing this with me and appreciate their support tremendously. what i meant to say is that i don’t always WANT to talk about it. don’t always want to be the downer. the ‘i’m good’ has become the go to for when i just don’t feel like running down the list of the ways cancer has had a negative impact on my life. i also blog specifically so that i CAN freely and easily share my thoughts and feelings with those i love (and others). so sorry for your loss and thanks so much for taking the time to read my words. ❤️


  2. Judith lamberti says:

    Wishing you many bright sunny days .Hoping you continue to your blog& sending you all my prayers. I enjoy your writings so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Paul Fellenz says:

    As I use to tell Seth each night at bed time, “Peace with two fingers!”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. shashlaz says:

    Hang in there strong lady. You are awesome and I love you very much.  Can’t wait to share my experience of that cheetah running across the serengetti with you xoxo

    Sent from my Verizon 4G LTE Tablet

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave Lamenzo says:

    Jen, Yes, as you and Paul Kalanithi say, “death approaches”. It certainly does for those who have no cancers or other ailments and for others who are dealing, as you and I, with cancer. I have been dealing with metastatic melanoma for nearly 20 years and I always know that its death grip may or may not be just around the corner to ambush me. So what; life continues !! Over the past years, I have always enjoyably done what I needed to do and wanted to do. When (and, if …)the ambush comes, I will fight it to my last breath. Take care, Jen, and hang in there !!

    Liked by 1 person

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