Jen Sotham is a freelance journalist and screenwriter/director. She was working as a university professor in Busan, South Korea, where she lived for almost a decade, when she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2014. Still doing battle with the beast, Jen has since returned to New York, where she has been using her voice to share her story through film, essays and her blog, jenvscancer.wordpress.com
What happens when you get "used" to having late-stage cancer?
If you look at the trajectory of my personal cancer blog, Jen vs. Cancer, from the beginning, you'll notice that my posts have become less and less frequent. There is a very singular reason for this. When it comes to 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 crap.
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 seems to be working and 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" equals happiness, relief. Anything other than "I'm good" equals 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 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 one of my blogs 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. "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.