Field Tripping: What to do with yourself when you’ve got cancer and the flu

Photo by Kate Drabinski.

This column is supposed to be about field trips, about leaving the computer and actually going out into the world and doing actual things, an increasingly rare feat in newspapering these days. That’s a good plan until you come down with the flu while on chemo for breast cancer. Yeah, I wasn’t going anywhere. When there are headlines warning of healthy people dying three days after getting a slight fever, the immunocompromised cancer patient gets pretty fucking scared they are next.

I also wasn’t going outside because the fatigue that hit me was so very intense. “Fatigue” can’t capture the weight how I’ve felt this chemo cycle. I barely remember the first few days with the flu, a hot blur of hours spent in and out of consciousness as the “Great British Baking Show” sang in the background. I can’t say enough about this show for times of trial. After my dad was killed by an errant driver, the family gathered in the silence that follows such an event—what is there to say or do when faced with such unexpected tragedy? The answer turned out to be sitting, looking side eye at the abyss I feared would swallow me if I looked at it straight on, and watching as sweet-natured people with day jobs turned out meringues, sponges, scones, and tarts. When a baker was eliminated, everyone shared hugs and regret. It’s perfect for when everything else is terrible.

Another round of bakers lulled me through some hard days in and out of fever and worry that my developing cough would lead to pneumonia and then sepsis and then become a headline: Unhealthy middle aged woman with a wife and two cats dies, unsurprisingly, after catching the flu despite all best precautions. There are no more seasons left, so let’s hope things look up over here for the next few years.

And then the Olympics started. These aren’t quite as feel-good, what with the casual racism of our U.S.-based announcers and the knowledge that for host cities, the Olympics often herald brutal displacement and transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. I’m privileged enough to get to put that in the background and just enjoy myself—what a world, what a self. The Olympics also turn me into a rabid “USA USA USA” nationalist in spite of all I know about our brutal history and present of settler colonialism, slavery, heteropatriarchy, and capitalist superexploitation. I weep at the feel-good stories of athletes who have worked so hard and dreamed so long and here they are, living their Olympic dreams. If you can’t leave the house and you have access to cable television, nothing’s better than the Olympics.

I’ve gotten into every sport I’ve watched. Curling is so much strategy and artistry, and the time limits count down how long you’ve got to think about what you’re doing, but the doing can take just as long as the thinking. Brilliant. Luge—the fastest sport at the games, as they keep reminding us—is just death-defying, no margin for error. Biathlon asks people to ski uphill if you can believe that, and then remain a steady shot in high winds. What the fuck. Slopestyle and halfpipe are just bananas, downhill is completely out of control, and who volunteers to get into ski jumping? You start higher than the Statue of Liberty, and a few seconds later you at the bottom and 110 meters away (however far that is). No way.

I love the part of watching the Olympics where I get to share in that moment when you’ve worked so hard for something for so long, had to get over so many mental hurdles—the doubt, the fear, the despair—and you finally reach the goal. I’ll have that moment maybe two or three times in my life, but mostly life is getting up when the alarm goes off, packing a lunch, getting to work and getting back, making dinner when you’re too tired, and then going to bed to get up and do it again the next day. I love and miss the steadiness and reliability of the quotidian, but the thrill of getting that thing you’ve worked so hard for? It is such a rush. I like to feed off somebody else’s when I can, and I appreciate that it makes me cry.

In between watching the Olympics, I’ve been reading books by people dying of cancer. Let me be clear: Cancer isn’t killing me right now. I’m going to die, just like we all are, but likely not of breast cancer in the near future. My prognosis is excellent. That said, I think about dying a lot more than I used to, an abyss that threatens to swallow me whole if I look too close. It’s scary. Writers like Kate Bowler, Paul Kalanithi, and Nina Riggs offer a radical vulnerability about a time that most of us are too scared to even imagine ever coming for us, even as intellectually we know it’s coming for all of us.

Most recently I finished Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air,” a 2016 bestseller. I lay there in bed reading his words about what it’s like to live when you know you are dying but you aren’t sure when but are sure it’ll be sooner than later and you know too much to let yourself believe too much in hope. I cried. And I wished we talked more about death, that death were more a part of life. It’s the only thing other than getting born that we’re all guaranteed to share, and yet we push it away as long as we can, each of us figuring out our own paths when our dads are hit by trucks and we come down with a case of the cancer. I can feel myself shoving it in the background even as it has made its presence so materially known. And then I got out of bed, put on some clothes, and headed to the bar for a beer and some men’s double curling. I’ve got another round of chemo in two days, the world is on fire, I’m finally over the flu, I think, and hopefully they’ll open up the downhill course tonight so I can watch Mikaela Shiffrin cement her legacy at the ripe old age of 22. Life with cancer, as it goes.

  • Kathryn Deiss

    This is a brilliant post, Kate. I am so sorry you had flu on top of chemo and glad the flu is gone. Re: talking more about death and dying, I could not agree more. I grew up in Mexico where death is a part of life in every way. When my Mom was dying of cancer years and years ago, we had already had so many conversations about death and we continued these. It helped me immeasurably to have been raised in a culture where there was an embrace of death rather than an abject avoidance. Thank you for this post.

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