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The Many Faces of Survival

by Elizabeth Simpson

My mother survived four cancers and proved to her three daughters and our father that vigilance and courage can stretch one's life beyond medical expectations. Her journey began in her forties with a patch of red on her porcelain face. The melanoma was removed and forgotten until she reached her fifties. Her cheeks grew rosy then from having too many red blood cells. Polycythemia meant she had to endure the medieval practice of being bled every two months. By her early sixties she was as active as ever, but forced to have her bloated spleen removed. Cleanser of blood, this overworked organ had become the victim of a disease it had previously controlled. By this time my sisters and I had moved west, away from where our parents lived on the Canadian prairies. When Mother became ill for the fourth time in her late sixties, Father drove her to visit their eldest daughter and five grandchildren in Alberta. From there our parents drove to visit me at UBC in Vancouver and then south to White Rock where their youngest daughter lived with her new baby. Later we learned her doctor had advised our mother to visit us before undergoing surgery to remove a cancer-riddled kidney.

When mother died of leukemia at age seventy-one, my father asked me to give her eulogy. I strived to give her courage its due and to express the joy our family felt at having shared her seventy-first birthday cake, proof of her having survived the biblical allotment of three-score-and-ten. Before and after these various cancers, my parents built a house, won prizes for their gardens, and spent hours caring for their grandchildren. My voice and hands trembled when I saw my father in the front pew of the church at her funeral. Under his dark suit and shoes, he wore the woolen vest and socks Mother had knit on her deathbed to keep him warm in her absence.

Her courage was not wasted on us. When my elder sister lay dying at fifty-four of repeatedly misdiagnosed kidney cancer, she turned a brave face toward her five children and two sisters when we gathered to comfort her. When I was misdiagnosed because I was a non-smoker, I almost died of metastasized lung cancer. Sliced open and re-diagnosed as inoperable, I was immobilized while my partner brought organic food to the hospital and encouraged me to believe in survival. Because I was otherwise healthy, I was chosen for a trial therapy of as much chemotherapy and radiation as the body can endure, simultaneously. When I asked my chemotherapist why I should keep faith in tomorrow, she said, "You just have to." My radiation oncologist didn't talk much, but he made me realize he would have made a successful gangster had he been interested in another weapon than a radiation gun.

When the doctors were amazed by my recovery, I began to see cancer as both a threat and a blessing. I not only discovered that it strips away facades, but that friends and colleagues are willing to leave food and cards on the doorstep when they feel needed. When I didn't die, my partner proposed that we marry. Cancer, it seemed, had changed his notion of marriage from a simple legality to a soul-restoring celebration that threaded its way into the future. After three years as lovers in separate homes and another three living together, we shared a joyful wedding with friends and family and spent a honeymoon month in Tuscany. I returned to work again with my colleagues and students. Having learned that what you give of yourself boomerangs to make life meaningful, I nurtured three female friends through their cancers.

On our fifth wedding anniversary, my husband and I returned to Italy with small backpacks and rode the train to explore the Cinque Terre and Sicily. We came home with reason to believe that after six years, my remission was here to stay. On our tenth anniversary, we hiked the golden sands and ancient villages on the Greek Islands. But at the end of this holiday, my husband discovered a lump the size of a child's marble under the smooth skin of his inner thigh. He came home to a diagnosis of lymphoma metastasized to eighty per cent of his bone marrow. Having recently buried his mother on her ninety-ninth birthday and his paternal aunt at one hundred and two, we were shocked by the oncologist's opinion. His energy had been palpable all of his sixty years. The more we researched Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, the more frightened we became. Just as I began to lose hope, a new treatment became available and its effect put a grin on the face of his oncologist and a sense of optimism in our home.

At the time of my treatments in 1995 and during his treatment 2006, medications had made full remissions possible, returning the possibility of a future to cancer patients. Today, no one in the local gym or along our morning walk with our standard poodle guesses my husband is in the midst of a two-year treatment or that I had once been stricken by cancer. To live out a dream, we have pinched our pennies to buy a half-acre of waterfront on a gulf island and are drawing up plans to build a cabin there.

Cancer is a deafening word, but it is no longer affiliated with shame and certain death. In the Twenty-First Century, new diagnostic equipment makes it possible for patients not eligible for surgery to be radiated and medicated into remission. The availability of health foods, refined chemotherapies, medications for side affects, and warnings about tobacco and excess alcohol have enabled patients everywhere to champion their own survival. As a consequence, we can outlive former medical prognoses to fulfill our dreams for an active future. This multi-faceted disease is no longer simply terrifying, it is also rewarding. In the aftermath of cancer, unexpected blessings unfold.

Elizabeth Simpson has published two non-fiction books: The Perfection of Hope (1997) and One Man at a Time (2000). She has also had her short stories anthologized. Before deciding to write full time, she taught Canadian Literature to college and university students and ran a Reading Series for established writers with new publications. CBC radio aired two of her short stories: Dressed for Suicide (2002) and Puppy Love (2003). She has also published reviews of newly published Canadian novels and works of non-fiction. At the moment she is seeking a publisher for her first novel, Under the Marmalade Moon.