Cancer up close

It’s a funny thing, cancer. “Out of sight, out of mind” would be the best way to describe it, I guess. I never used to think about it much, at least not as anything more than a definition in my biology textbook. A middle school friend’s mother had it once. She beat it, though, in less than a year. It was breast cancer – everybody gets breast cancer. Everybody beats it, too. One year and she was fine. No big deal.

Those were the days when I heard “cancer” and thought of two things: Conor’s mom and a Race for the Cure that I went to with my parents ages ago. Oh yeah, there’s that annoying crab, too. Funny how I was born in mid-July. So I guess that’s three things, three distant things, though. Distant in that they didn’t bring tears to my eyes. Distant in that they were far from the front of my mind. Those were definitely the days.

It’s been awhile since things were like that, since I was that carefree. That’s what happens when someone close to you gets sick. It’s a paradigm shift. It made me realize that not everyone gets cancer and not everyone beats it. It sort of made things more real. Important things that used to seem dull like family dinners and hugs matter much more now, and things that used to seem important but really weren’t don’t matter at all.

I guess I always knew what was supposed to be important; it just didn’t seem that important back then. So maybe it’s a paradigm clarification, then. Not a shift, just some redirection. Either way, whether by shift or clarification, my outlook has changed towards just about everything, and I think it has been for the better.

Not the cancer, of course, just the perspective it’s given me. That’s the funny thing. I used to classify cancer as a parasite because I was sure that all it did was take, take and take and give nothing back. I’m not so sure anymore, though. It definitely gave me something. Exactly what, I’m not really sure. But on some level I’m okay with that, because uncertainty is the essence of my experience. And appropriately that’s right where my experience begins, I guess – with not being sure. Not being sure of what Mom and Dad wanted when they called my brother and me upstairs to “talk.” Even less sure of what to say or do when they had told us.

That’s where my experience with cancer started. A junior in high school scrambling to dot my i’s and cross my t’s along with every other kid my age. And now I had to come home every day to a mom with no energy and even less hair. Spoon-feeding the hand that had fed me for as long as I could remember. Talk about a paradigm shift.

I am not the only one on campus who has had this kind of experience, but sometimes it feels that way. I can say with perfect honesty that before this op-ed, I had not shared my situation in this kind of detail with a single person at Williams. Even my best friends here were barely aware. They didn’t know about the relapse senior year or the endless winter days I spent doing physics homework in the hospital. And that’s not their fault. I chose to let is fester. But that ends now.

Everyone seems to have their guard up at school, and while Williams offers a great variety of forums to vent, none were developed exclusively for the purpose of helping students affected by cancer. Until now. Let all of us who have a story to tell get together and share the good, the bad and the ugly. There is strength to be found in commonality.

My mom has been cancer-free for over a year now, but her cough lingers, and whenever a coughing fit strikes or I see an article quoting reports that lung cancer is genetic, I get to thinking.
This article is not for sympathy. It is simply for those of you who grapple with a similar situation. We are Students Affected by Cancer, and we will fight.

My unix is ajf1, and I encourage interested members of the student body to contact me. Our first meeting will be as soon as next week. And yeah, the acronym was intentional. I’m sure members will appreciate the laugh.

Aaron Flack ’11 is from Manlius, N.Y. He lives in Spencer House.