August 2, 2001
It's seven months since my lung cancer diagnosis. Am I a survivor yet? It's strange to think how urgently I need that word. I understand in a personal way what cyclist Lance Armstrong, granted new life after testicular cancer, meant when he declared, "I'm not a victim, I'm a survivor."
There's an irony in my change of heart. Ours is the age of The Survivor, a distinction so diluted that it has its own game show. When I was healthy, The Survivor was easy to parody as self-dramatizing and self-conscious. True, we all suffer. But how would we deal with the London blitz? An economic depression? Here is the latest manifestation of the "Joseph Campbellization" of our culture, in which each of us, on our own spiritual journey, slays our Puff the Magic dragons and finds our way home.
I liked it better when survivorship was like the Titanic, the rare coin, signifying undisputed anomalies of history: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, acts of desecration so horrific, and so replete with moral consequences, they activate what Prof. Edward Lilienthal calls "the commemorative membrane," demanding the creation of museums or sculpture, places of national pilgrimage.
And yet, now I have cancer, and I see that maybe I was heartless, cruel. Ruptures can occur not only to nations or tribes but also to selves. And outrages take place not only on battlefields or death camps but in the lung, the heart, the mind. The Hebrew language understands what I'm going through: the word "survivor," shereed, is related to escape, sherad, and also to the capacity to save oneself, sherah, meaning persistence, perseverance.
The battle against cancer demands persistence, perseverance, and unflagging energy to beat the odds.
And yet, it's way too soon to speak of survival. At Cedars-Sinai's Cancer Survivor Day, the wise men and women chosen as role models had lived three or more years past chemotherapy. That's like forever, from cancer's point of view.
And yet I can hardly wait. If I could only be designated a survivor, the agony might be over, and normal life could begin again.
My oncologist cautions me not to become too attached to "survival," a word he never uses, unwilling to fool me, or himself. Cancer cells can disappear from a CT scan, but experience says, hey, curb your enthusiasm; the disease never really goes away. Survival is a dream fulfilled anew every day.
Yet it seems that the more rational my doctor's argument, the more urgent is my need. Survival is a firestorm burning through the dry timber of my rage.
Like other cancer patients, I spent the first angry moments after my diagnosis asking, "Why me?" Looking for reasons, however, was not only futile but draining. No one knows why I got lung cancer. No one ever will.
Looking for spiritual sustenance, I turned, predictably, to the Book of Job, the proof text of the innocent mourner. But this was even worse. Job was a good man, the victim of a hideous bet between God and Satan about the nature of faith. Had I stayed with Job, I too might have lost resolve, and been as good as dead.
The big change occurred the minute I stopped wondering why bad things happen to good people. What difference could it make? Once I rejected absolutely the idea that God was manipulating, if not outright causing, my condition, I was finally free to defend myself. To fight cancer, I have to eat and exercise. I have to stop thinking like a mourner, a victim, and start acting like one who would be left standing, a survivor.
Avivah Zornberg ascribes to the story of Joseph precisely this struggle for survival. Writing in her book, "Genesis: The Beginning of Desire," Zornberg notes that from the time he was kidnapped and sold by his brothers into slavery, Joseph's life was one injustice, one pit after another. He faced the constant threat of oblivion.
"To be thrown into a pit," she writes, "is effectively to be declared dead in the mind of others." She has it right: Others recoil against the cancer diagnosis as a death sentence. We are plunged into darkness and emptiness, disappearing into einenu, what Zornberg translates as "lostness."
And yet, Joseph never stops exerting himself. He talks about himself to the Baker and the Butler. He urges his cellmates, "Remember me." Time and again, he talks his way out of the pit and back into life.
"It is essential to the process of recovery that the loser own his own loss, that he become conscious of an absence," she quotes the Talmud as saying. And that he do something about it.
Surviving demands that we move from the victimization of Job to the activism of Joseph. From "Why me?" to "What now?"
If Joseph can get out of the pit, I can survive, too.