A Battle with Cancer: The Epic Version

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Odysseus

From time to time I have written about my friend Alan, who has been assaulted by a series of cancerous tumors that the doctors keep on removing, either through surgery or through radiation/cyberknifing.  He has had tumors removed from his eyelid, his neck, both lungs (six in all from the lungs) and now, most recently, from his brain.  Some of the surgeries have occurred only a few weeks apart.  At different times he has lost a salivary gland, his sense of taste (which has returned), his balance.  Yet he keeps on battling.

Recovering from brain surgery has proven his greatest challenge, and he has just learned that he has a new tumor in his brain stem (the doctors will radiate it) .  Yet every day, with the help of Jackie and a physical therapist, he works diligently and relentlessly.  His friends are in awe.

And that’s not all that awes us.  Over the past year he has read the first volume of Proust’s In Remembrance of Things Past, and he just finished Moby Dick.  He traveled to his alma mater (Haverford College) to give a lecture on the abtract painter Mark Rothko.   He has been going through all his affairs (including selling a summer home in British Columbia) to make sure that, if he does die relatively soon, Jackie will not be left in the lurch.

Is there a work of literature that captures such remarkable resilience, such a refusal to go gently into that good night?  My colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black suggested The Odyssey, which I like because it frames Alan as an epic hero.

Think about how everything goes wrong for Odysseus.  First of all, right after his son is born, he must go off to fight in a war he doesn’t want to join.  Then, after the (10-year) campaign is over and he on his way home (which takes another ten years), there is one disaster after another.   He loses a few men to Polyphemus the Cyclops, who bashes out their brains and eats them in front of him.  Then, after getting within sight of home, his men open up the bag of winds that Aeolus has given him and the ship is blown off course. Then he loses all his ships but one to the Laestrygonians, who hurl down large rocks and spear his men to eat them. After spending a year with Circe (who initially turns his men into pigs), he must make an impossible choice: sacrifice six men to the six-headed monster Scylla or sail the ship into the whirlpool Charybdis. Then he loses all his men anyway when Poseidon hits their boat with a thunderbolt for eating the cattle of Helios, the sun god.  Then Odysseus ends up stranded for seven years on Calypso’s island.  Then, when he finally gets home, he discovers his house overrun with suitors.

What keeps Odysseus going and how does Alan resist surrendering to the cancer?  (In the imagery of the epic, surrendering would mean giving up the quest to get home–yielding without a struggle to what to Keats called “easeful death.”)  To answer the question in Odysseus’s case, it’s useful to imagine how we would explain today the supernatural forces that help him counteract both the island sorceresses, sirens and lotus eaters that want to seduce him and and the monsters, angry gods, and suitors that want to kill him. Then we can apply them to Alan.

Getting off Calypso’s island takes divine intervention.  When Odysseus has been there for seven years, Athena complains to Zeus that, as king of Ithaca, he has responsibilities that he should be attending to.  Zeus agrees and proceeds (through Hermes) to pressure Calypso.

Read psychologically, this is Odysseus feeling the call of duty.  He should be attending to his kingly responsibilities.  The call is so strong that it seems to come from outside himself, from Zeus.  He is willing to risk putting out to sea on a self-constructed raft rather than remain any longer on the island, even though life there is good.

A sense of duty to our loved ones can enter into our struggle to stay alive, and I think it is propelling Alan.  In his case to his wife and his daughter.  They both rely on him being there for him.

And Alan is responding to the call of duty faster that the Greek hero.  It takes Odysseus seven years before he starts trying to find his way home.  Perhaps living on a Mediterranean island with a beautiful nymph dulls one’s moral compass.

Something comparable happens on Circe’s island.  Although Odysseus has a fully functioning boat and a crew (no “stranded” excuse here), he still stays with her, and makes love to her, for a year.  (Try explaining that one to Penelope!)  To be sure, when he first stumbles onto the island, he is in shock.  After all, he has just lost all his other boats to the savagery of the Laestrygonians. But to remain for a full year?!

Before he leaves, he visits the underworld in an episode that I read as him reflecting on what he should do with his life.  Should he stay on the island or should he go home?  On the one hand, he’s living safely with an island sorceress and his men aren’t complaining, so one could understand a reluctance to leave.  On the other . . .

We see him wrestling with the meaning of life as he talks to figures in the underworld.  He must acknowledge that death comes eventually (he meets his mother, who has died grieving for him).  He faces the prospect that his wife may be unfaithful (Agamemnon tells him about Clytemnestra).  Achilleus has him questioning why we should bother being responsible since it just gets us killed.  “Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations,” the legendary figure says, “than lord it over all the exhausted dead.”

So if glory is meaningless, if wives may be unfaithful, and if death may already have come to those we love, why leave a comfortable situation to adventure out on dangerous seas?

But further talk (or reading the episode psychologically, further self-reflection) gives him reasons to go.  There are still people in Ithaca who love him (his mother mentions how his father Laertes is in perpetual mourning).  Agamemnon points out that he’s married to a woman who is too smart to be unfaithful (“she is too wise, too clear-eyed, sees alternatives too well”).  And talking to Achilleus reminds him that he himself has a legacy.  The despairing Akhilleus is cheered up when he hears that his son is proving a great warrior—which is another way of Odysseus thinking of his own son.

In short, the journey to the underworld can be read as an internal exploration of life’s purpose.  Be a pig on Circe’s island (“As though to breathe were life!” as Tennyson’s Ulysses puts it) or venture out and embrace one’s destiny.

I can’t begin to do justice to Alan’s interior dialogues, but he too has found himself probing all those existential questions brought on by acute awareness of our mortality.  Jackie is clearly his Penelope and his daughter Linnea, a gifted artist, is his Telemachus. (Here’s her website.)  Furthermore, the community around him, those of us who love him, give him something to live for.

And there’s another resource Alan has.  Like Odysseus, he is guided by Athena. The Greeks were so impressed with Odysseus’s great intelligence that they assumed he must be favored by the goddess of wisdom. Alan too has a fierce intellect, which means that he has never given up researching his cancer, asking lots of questions, and (in certain cases) getting doctors to rethink their recommendations.  One doctor has thanked Alan for what he has taught him and his colleagues about the judicious use of chemotherapy (which Alan has resisted).  The desire to know more about life and death seems to keep Alan going.

Whether bolstered and sustained by natural or by supernatural forces, Alan keeps on fighting.  And while doctors warn him against hope—they have yet to locate the mother tumor—those of us who love him can’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, Alan’s end could be the one predicted for Odysseus.  Teiresias, the blind seer that Odysseus questions in the underworld, tells him that

                                                     a seaborne death
soft as this hand of mist will come upon you
when you are wearied out with rich old age,
your country folk in blessed peace around you.

Undoubtedly Alan will encounter more adventures as he struggles to reach the Island of Good Health.  It is worrisome that, unlike Homer’s Greek audiences, we don’t know how his story will turn out.  But we do know that he is battling like an epic hero and that, so far, he has lived over a year longer than any of his doctors predicted.

Don’t bet on the monsters.

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  • Francisco Santos

    Can’t help but think that Alan has a great friend in you. Your post reminded me of what David Foster Wallace wrote “Acceptance is its own verve”.

    I imagined how Alan must have felt when he courageously accepted the reality of his situation but chose to fight the cancer with every ounce of his being.

  • Robin Bates

    I’d never heard this quotation, Franciso, but I like it a lot. Another one that gets at a similar idea is the conclusion to the Mary Oliver poem “In Blackwater Woods”:

    To live in this world

    you must be able
    to do three things:
    to love what is mortal;
    to hold it

    against your bones knowing
    your own life depends on it;
    and, when the time comes to let it go,

    to let it go.

  • Francisco

    Robin,

    The DFW quote comes from an essay entitled “Derivative Sport In Tornado Alley” from the book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

    Francisco

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks, Franciso. I’ll check it out.

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