Cancer and the mythical journey
December 22, 2013 10:16 PM   Subscribe

"The experience of being struck down by cancer is very interesting. Assuming it doesn’t kill you very quickly (and it does sometimes kill speedily and without mercy) the cancer sufferer can find himself or herself launched on an heroic journey. By that I don’t mean that I’m a hero because I have cancer; I mean ‘heroic’ in the mythical sense, in that your life is suddenly propelled along a remorseless narrative that has the structure of all great mythical journeys." -- Graham Joyce, himself recovering from cancer, looking at recovery as a quest story.
posted by MartinWisse (10 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

Having recently recovered from stage IV-B Hodgkin's lymphoma, this sort of rings true, but not entirely.

The process of "beating" cancer felt very much like something that was happening to me rather than something I was doing. The doctors and medical science fought a battle with cancer, and I was the battlefield. My job was just to keep it together enough that the battle could continue.
posted by monolith at 11:53 PM on December 22, 2013 [15 favorites]

Yeah, ditto, monolith. I never felt like the protagonist during my time in cancer treatment either. I understand that thinking this way is probably empowering, but I definitely felt like the battlefield. I could see myself being spun into narratives by other people, though. Which was annoying.
posted by Hildegarde at 2:39 AM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

>The process of "beating" cancer felt very much like something that was happening to me rather than something I was doing.


I'm recovering from Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Stage 1e. I told my friends, this is about as non-serious as Lymphoma gets. Non-serious or not, beating it involved a six-month chemo odyssey, with all the nausea, fatigue and lifestyle changes that implies. My cancer actually succumbed quickly to treatment. Within two cycles the tumours were down flat. But the chemo continued for four more cycles, because you don't fool around with cancer, you keep hammering it until you are as sure as you can be that it is gone.

When I learned I had cancer I had a choice. I could ignore it or I could embark on chemo. It was hard finding figures but I eventually worked out that, untreated, I had a 50% chance of being dead within a year. With treatment, I had an excellent chance of beating it outright. Put that way, it was a no-brainer. But by opting for treatment I was handing the rudder of my life to others, trusting them to bring me safely to port. All I could do was to co-operate and try to maintain both a positive outlook and some quality of life.

Something the FPP touches on rather lightly is the effect on those around you - your partner, your children, your parents. The chemo affects them too. Sometimes I think it affected my wife more than me, because when I was at my lowest I was sometimes so dull that I couldn't even appreciate how badly off I was - but she could.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 2:40 AM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've met Graham at a couple of cons and attended two of his writers workshops. He's a fantastic teacher and a great guy. All I can do is wish him well.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:28 AM on December 23, 2013

I had a fairly abrupt recovery, so I had a somewhat limited heroic journey - surgery was enough to fix things in both cases (in the first instance, neither the docs nor I thought it was cancer (just pre-cancerous) until the pathology lab took a look at things). However, leading up to and right after the surgery for the first go-round, I was incredibly struck by the realization that this would be a moment that would forever divide my life into "before" and "after", on a positively epic level.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:44 AM on December 23, 2013

I had tiny, practically instantly curable skin cancer this spring. It's been weird because we have these cultural expectations about what it means to have cancer, but my experience was none of that. I know the mythology and suffer from the dissonance of not fitting into it.
posted by Andrhia at 12:33 PM on December 23, 2013

The writer contemplates a stem-cell transplant. His journey has just begun.

The theme changes from "The Quest" to "re-Genesis." I hope he does well.
posted by mule98J at 2:03 PM on December 23, 2013

I guess a mythic journey is a trifle less macho than the battle metaphor, which I've never liked (with all its downsides, such as the expectation that you have to be - and be seen to be - "brave"). Like Andrhia, I haven't found much to connect with in the standard narratives, which don't tend to include incurable cancer with no findable origin and no symptoms (I have CUP). On the other hand, D.O.A. has acquired a lot more significance, if only for its message about not wasting time.
posted by raygirvan at 6:08 PM on December 23, 2013

Interesting. I expected to feel a greater low when diagnosed with breast cancer and a greater high when I beat it but it felt just like something along the lines of an annoying burden that consumed my time and life. The chemo was difficult more in that I had to top other things and do it; but I never felt that it was insurmountable and I never felt heroic for doing what I needed to do. Somehow my friends with diabetes and kidney failure have more struggles than I have this because I expected my cancer to be cured?

However a friend was diagnosed with cancer of the omentum (the belly fat area) and it took her in weeks...and I was horribly frightened for her and with good reason. All this made me reflect that i felt more control over my own life but my husband and children were overwhelmed by my illness as I was by my friends.
posted by OhSusannah at 9:34 PM on December 23, 2013

Why it's time to ditch the word "cancer" - "A former president of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland argues that the word “cancer” is unhelpful in efforts to lead patients away from quacks."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:48 AM on December 30, 2013

« Older “I wanted to take each dancer and make them into a...  |  Mademoiselle Brigitte Bardot... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments