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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A question of identity

Self-portrait having surgical stitches removed. I asked to remove one myself, just to see how it was done.
Self-portrait having surgical stitches removed. I asked to remove one myself, just to see how it was done.
I have survived two different cancers. The first one showed up in my 40th year, but a gastroenterologist dismissed the bleeding as running-related hemorrhoids. (Yes, I once was really that active.) In his mind, I was too young and too vegetarian for it to be colon cancer. By the time it was properly diagnosed, the tumor had breached the bowel wall. What could have been a quick snip ended up being a year of intensive treatment.
My second cancer was much less dramatic. Again it started with internal bleeding, this time from a uterine tumor. Those parts had all been pretty well microwaved during my first treatment, so they just took them all out.


The oddity wasn’t just having two cancers; it was having them younger than the age recommended by the NIH. I was tested for Lynch Syndrome, or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, as it used to be called. Unsurprisingly, it came up positive.
I’m pretty larky, so when people asked me if I was journaling about my experiences, I told them I was writing a book called One Hundred Best Things about Having Cancer. (Number one, of course, was getting out of leading Youth Group.) Yeah, I was likely to die of cancer, but we’re all going to die of something. In practical terms, nothing really changed. I was already being screened aggressively, and it didn’t change that.
But deep down it affected my thinking. I’m a carrier of cancer, I told myself. I may have given this to my children. I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. I have to hurry to finish what I’ve set out to do.
This year I decided I was sick of defining myself as a cancer survivor. I know too many people who are entering old age in prisons of health problems to want to build one for myself. It’s not like I can just pretend it never happened, because all that treatment radically changed my body. But I wouldn’t talk or think about it anymore. I no longer needed to see my life through a lens of cancer.
Pastor Alvin Parris of Joy Community Church in Rochester, NY. He's a talented musician and preacher, and he aims to finish the race strong.
Pastor Alvin Parris of Joy Community Church in Rochester, NY. He’s a talented musician and preacher, and he aims to finish the race strong.
Then, late this summer, I got another letter from my geneticist. It said they’d had another look-see at my profile and decided that my gene mutation wasn’t really Lynch Syndrome after all. Never mind.
Practically speaking, that changes little. I still go regularly to Rochester to be poked and prodded. But it does raise the question asked in Isaiah 53:1: “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?”
Pastor Alvin Parris in Rochester, NY has been on dialysis since I met him. He is physically frail, but his inner power just glows. Last week his son commented, “Every time I hear my dad preach, I think about how the doctor told him that by the time he was 50, preaching was one of the many things he would no longer be able to do. He’s 65 now.”
That’s a role model for our generation.

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