Searching For My Cancer Words


“Each of us has our own way of marking what cancer brings to our lives, sometimes in a simple three-letter word,” writes a woman with breast cancer.

For nearly a year now I’ve had an internet window open on my battery-failing, used-before-purchase, needs-recharging-every-60-minutes phone. It doesn’t tell me how to improve the battery life. It isn’t about cancer.

It’s an artist’s jewelry site showcasing rings designed to represent specific molecules. I have a favorite, but its cost has so far meant I just admire – regularly – from my phone’s small screen.

There’s another site I visit often. It belongs to a jewelry maker who lives with metastatic breast cancer, just like me, but with products priced within my comfort zone. She makes rings stamped with phrases, words, initials and so on.

I like the idea of having jewelry that means something to me in terms of my life experience, in the same way that I have a collection of t-shirts from friends’ various cancer-related fundraisers. But I haven’t bought a ring from this person either. I’ve thought a lot about what words would be meaningful to me.

The examples I’ve seen say things like “Hope,” “Survivor,” and “Faith,” all of which are powerfully meaningful to someone – but not to me. I am or have all of those things, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that they don’t reach into my heart.

Many years ago, when I was 11 or 12 and buying Christmas presents – with my own money, so be understanding when you read what comes next – I selected and painted small ceramic wall plaques for each of my sisters. For my older sister, I chose a cartoon cow. This has continued to be a source of humor between us – when has a picture of a cow ever been the right gift choice for a teenage girl? For my younger sister, the plaque simply said “Is.” I still laugh about these two gifts. Maybe they were all I could afford? Did I have to pay by the letter for my younger sister’s gift? Was I being philosophical? I have no idea.

Whenever I think about what I want stamped on the ring I’ll eventually order, that plaque comes into my mind. It’s why “And?” is where my heart goes. Maybe I’m reverting to my pre-teen self, but right now it’s the only word that captures my life.

I have cancer and I’m going to live.

I live with loss and I live with hope.

I am angry and sad and joyous and scared.

“And” is why when a friend is lost or anxious, I can remember that feeling one thing doesn’t mean you don’t feel many other emotions at the same time. It reminds me that when I feel jealous or ignored, there is room for you and me and everyone else. People and emotions are not pie slices, we’re each an entire pie with whipped cream and ice cream.

My cancer experience is not an either/or, zero-sum life.

I’m marking my life with cancer more carefully these days, as losses pile up and some of the same old conversations get repeated with little actual progress. It’s true that I silently ask “and?” of everything I hear.

I’m pretty sure that someday soon I will place orders for a ring from each of these artists. I can be trapped in one place by the molecular representation I choose, and I can look at my stamped ring in moments when I need a reminder that there is always more to know and feel and experience.

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