learning to do cancer from fb

So by now, you’ve probably seen this whole pre-mastectomy dance party video and the equally awesome responses by this woman’s friends/family/colleagues who made videos dancing themselves for her recovery. It’s kind of everywhere on Facebook. It’s kind of awesome.

I kind of don’t know what to think. On the one hand, OMG, this is SO COOL and HOW do I get my medical team to be such rock-stars like she did?!?!? And also, would MY friends make silly videos like that, too? I mean not would they exactly do what these folks did, but if I asked them to do something, would they? Am I even cool enough to think of something that amazing? Am I cool enough to party out with breast cancer instead of freaking out?

And what does it mean that this is getting passed around? She- and everyone who participated- are incredible, playful, creative, brave. But those of us posting this to our FB feed and emailing it and participating in its viral life… why? Are we so obsessed with hearing happy stories of awesome about cancer and women with cancer that we need to frantically share this so everyone knows, this is how to be with cancer? That actually, if you just try hard enough, you can think of something awesome and do it, and everyone else will follow suit, and it will be awesome and obviously, you will beat cancer? I mean, I love this so much. And I love that she did this. I just think the hyper-circulation and viral life of this pre-mastectomy video is a little unnerving. I think it’s so unnerving because the quantity of times it has shown itself on my Facebook feed seems to scream right at me, THIS IS HOW TO DO CANCER.

I’m trying to figure out how to do cancer. This woman-doctor shows us one way, a way that everyone will clap for and love and share and make viral. I know particular kinds of stories are intelligible, and others are not. Oh gawd, I’m about to go all Ranciere and the distribution of the sensible on breast cancer. I’ll spare you. But really, why this story? Why this white doctor woman with great dance moves and a big pre- mastectomy smile? She’s great. But why’d we pick her to make viral? To be the example, to spread hope, to be non-threatening and totally lovable, to beat something by dancing?

On the other hand, there’s another how to do cancer text widely passed around on FB right now. This one is much sadder. A young woman with a beer sits on a porch with her lover. They drink. And then, it seems, she gets diagnosed with breast cancer. What follows are a series of images he took of her, resting, shaving her head, pushing the morphine button, visiting with friends. And then she is gone. Her bed empty, and the rain falling on the windshield of the car. This one is heart wrenching. I know, too, this one is shared because I don’t want to be her. No one does. No one wants me to be her, either.

I still don’t know the stage of my cancer. I’m clinging instead, to the fact that its estrogen +, which means it can be treated for a long time by blocking estrogen production. But the really sobering thing, is that though I can cling to the idea of that estrogen drug, I could actually be the second woman. The woman who’s husband chronicled her illness, and her eventual death. We could all be that woman.

This one doesn’t speak to me like the mastectomy dance. The mastectomy dance shows me how to be. This one warns me of what I could be. It is a deep, dark warning. It is the warning that assures the other 5,999 people in my age group that I’ve taken the bullet for all 6,000 of us, and so they can look. They can look in horror, and then look away, look towards the dancing video. Because that is what we want, even though we never know if that is what we have.

And then of course, there’s the formidable dissertation supervisor who, a researcher working at the intersection of queer/cancer/mobility/media never fails to post something that’s neither of these narratives. It’s an interview with Lochlann Jain, who was diagnosed with cancer at 36. She writes now, researches about cancer. She discusses the confounds, the complexities, the paradoxes, the slippages. Sure, Lochlann Jain is an academic. She speaks a language that sounds good to me. It sounds familiar. It feels thoughtful and right. She even talks about feeling like people think she is aggressive for not covering her bald head. It’s a medium I understand, thoughtful, critical words woven into a larger argument that speaks both to me, as another young woman diagnosed with breast cancer, and also, it’s both personal and theoretical and critical. I want to learn how to do cancer like her, not like the other two. But it’s not viral. Too bad for that!