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
Musings on mortality
You have cancer. You don’t have cancer. You have cancer. You don’t have cancer. This has been my world for the last five years. Many people, including myself, have equated this with a roller coaster. And though I’ve always cringed at how cliché a metaphor it is, it’s pretty spot-on. The thing is, whenever I’ve actually imagined the roller coaster, I’ve envisioned the rickety wooden Coney Island Cyclone, with simple ups and downs. But it much more resembles one of those Six Flags monsters, with drops so steep and sudden that your stomach pitches into your throat, twists so violent that your rib cage winds up bruised and upside down flips that result in chunks of regurgitated funnel cake in your hair. It’s the kind of roller coaster that, when it finally stops, you think, “Damn. I ain’t never riding that friggin’ thing again!”
Trouble is, this roller coaster just won’t stop. I can’t get off. The only thing I can do is pull the restraints on tight and hold on for dear life. So, with white knuckles and a clenched jaw, I lurch into each oncology appointment to evaluate what my treatment options are going forward — desperately hoping that we can find something, anything, that can, at the very least, slow this roller coaster down so I can catch my breath.
Time and again, people have told me that I need to remain optimistic. I've often explained to my people that my attitude can best be described as “guarded optimism,” but that’s not entirely accurate. Now I’d say that I’m hopefully pessimistic. The hope is there, and it is born of my understanding of and faith in the very real progress that is being made, in leaps and bounds, in melanoma treatment. I know that even if my body continues to develop resistance to or downright reject “promising” treatments, as it clearly has so far, there are still other things to try to keep the melanoma from growing and from taking over.
As for the pessimism… well, it’s melanoma. And I know now, more than ever, just how fierce a competitor this disease is — just how determined these little ninja fu@$ers are to keep attacking me over and over again. I’m tired – sooooo tired – of allowing myself to believe that I have won the battle, letting my guard down even for a brief moment, only to hear the alarms sound again and having to arm myself with new, unfamiliar weapons, many of which could potentially backfire.
One of the inevitable questions you are asked when you are diagnosed with a historically terminal illness is, “How often and in what capacity do you think about death?” The question is usually worded more gingerly, or more awkwardly, or with eyes cast downward, and I usually gauge my answer to the audience that is asking. But, since the majority of my support network doesn't ask, whether it be out of fear or respect for my privacy or not finding the right moment, I will try to break it down.
I don’t think about death, itself, the moment when it happens. I mean, what’s the point? Just because I have cancer doesn’t mean I can’t employ the “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow” philosophy. I also don’t really spend any significant amount of time thinking about what’s to happen to my soul or such when it gets absorbed up into the universe or whatnot. I mean, of course I’ve thought about the spiritual aspect of death many times over… c’mon, I indulged in my fair share of Grateful Dead tour-conducive substances, the kind that compel you to ponder such things. The conclusion I came to many years ago about my spiritual beliefs is simply that I do not need to define or give name to them. I feel my spirituality, and I embrace the people, places and experiences that make me feel more spiritually connected. That’s all I need in life. In death, I suppose. Que sera sera.
As I stand in a face-off with my mortality, what I see staring back at me is the world without me in it. I think about the pain of the people I would leave behind. I imagine my sister, laying in bed, having a one-sided existential conversation with her ceiling. I imagine my best friend belly-laughing while she tells her three teenaged boys about her coming-of-age shenanigans with Aunt Jen. I imagine one of my cousins, at some holiday party years down the road, shouting out, “Everyone in the kitchen — NOW! We’re playing a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity in honor of the game nazi.”
And strangely, the scenes that the dark corners of imagination most often conjure up are of my beautiful yellow lab, Oscar, in the days following my death, curled up on my pillow or whimpering outside my door.
I know that I am a gift to the people who love me, just as they are a gift to me. I know I’m a gift because I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who tell me such, generously and often. I know that, if melanoma takes me down, there will be a hole in their world, and it breaks my f'king heart. But remember, this is all just to answer the question of “in what capacity” I think about death when I think about it.
As for the other part of it, the “how often” I think about it, that’s a different story. Sure it is more than I did before the bomb of my most recent recurrence was dropped. But I still spend almost ALL of my time thinking about life. I am making my truest effort to spend most of my time in the present, and I’m finding that the present is a really special place to be. I've always purported to be a carpe diem kind of gal, but all of my wanderlust-y, life-grabby adventures were always pervaded by the “could've, would've, should've,” and the “what's next?”
As hard as I try to stay grounded in the now, you don’t get cancer and suddenly wake up and stop thinking about the future. My career goals have become more important to me than ever. I have just bought a car with the hopes that I have enough miles in me to outlast it. I am RSVP’ing to weddings. I am setting long-term educational goals with my students. I still fully intend to swim with whale sharks. I guess it’s silly to say “I refuse to die,” but shit, you won’t ever catch me dying. Goonies never say die!