Becoming An Open Book: Life With Cancer

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People-watching is one of my favorite activities.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Suzanne Remington

As I watch people while waiting in lines, or for meals in a restaurant, I wonder what their stories are. The non-descript are the best to watch; they appear as ordinary people, perhaps wearing tattered jackets and scuffed shoes. I imagine them as someone more than ordinary, like an immigrant from another country who speaks three languages, or a poet who writes beautiful sonnets. The group of twenty-somethings have a totally different story. One of them might be thinking about how many miles she’ll run tomorrow; another might be wondering the next step on their career path. As interesting as people-watching is, it is ultimately the author’s story to tell.

Too often, we try to guess a person’s book by their cover. And then have the nerve to be surprised when we’re wrong. I have been wrong about the people I watch, and people have been wrong about me. When I mention my chapter on cancer, I get immediate edits. “But you look so good”. “But I saw you at the gym”. To which I respond “my story is on the inside”. If I tell them that I have lung cancer, they immediately assume they are talking to someone who has smoked. Then it is my turn to edit. This confirms what I knew all along as a people-watcher. That most people’s stories will surprise you. And you never know the burden one carries within their pages, just by looking at their covers.

Part of me is happy that most people with Alk+ non-small cell lung cancer have changed the face of cancer. Thanks to the weight gain that accompanies many of our treatments, we do not look anorexic. Our treatments usually mean curlier hair, not a lack of it. We exercise, we attend conferences, we write. Research has changed the trajectory of our stories — at least our chapters involving cancer. We now have choices of how to attack the cancer. This research and these choices need to be continually discussed — to help other cancer fighters learn about them, and to give them hope. That’s why I am attentive to everyone’s stories, and do my best to become an open book myself.

My own cancer chapters have taught me many things. The most important is that no one knows the burdens any of us carry. The next time I get irritated with someone surprised by my story, I will remember times I made similar mistakes. I will also encourage anyone with cancer to be an open book. Books, after all, are meant to educate; in our case, education could be life-saving. One never knows how your words can impact others. So open your pages. Share your story. We are stronger together.

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Image of Dr. Minesh Mehta at ASCO 2024.