Remember Me as a Writer, Not a Survivor

My oncologist's nurse found out I was a writer. "You must keep a journal!" she said. "I have nothing to say on this subject. I have no comment ."

"But it could help other women."

"I don't care about them," I said.

That was true enough in the first few months after I discovered I had ovarian cancer, but what I didn't say was that writing had long ago lost its glow. I often found myself remembering Marcel Duchamp's last painting, "Tu m' " ("You Bore Me"). Even my work as a film critic for the local alternative paper suffered. I was often tempted to write, "Go see it and decide for yourself."

If typing, revising and mailing literary manuscripts was tedious before, it seemed absurd now. Statistics gave me a 30 percent chance of living five years.

Breast cancer's five-year survival rate is more than 80 percent, so it should not have surprised me when I thumbed through a list of local support groups and found plenty for breast and none for ovarian. Then it occurred to me: of course, they're all dead!

Not that death was a stranger. My poems tended toward death, death, death, pet death, death, sex, love, death.

Still, I was unprepared for just how unprepared I was to face my diagnosis. I would say it hit me like a train except that would describe the violence and not the despair, which was more like the embrace of a frozen corpse.

Ovarian cancer recurs frequently, and I could not shake the belief that no matter how well I'd done so far, I would not live long. Hoping for an edge, I asked the doctor about my cell type.

"Clear cell," she said.

"How does that affect my prognosis?"

"It doesn't," she said.

I soon learned she was a voice in the wilderness. Every researcher on the planet, it seemed, thought clear cell the worst ovarian malignancy.

Panicked, I found an online group of "ovca sisters" and asked if they'd heard any good news about clear cell. In a word: nope. But they were glad I'd found them.

Every day I read messages from women who shared my limbo existence. Those of us in remission could imagine our futures in the grim posts of the ill.

Some members gave up good-paying jobs to become activists. Ah, civic duty. I just couldn't hear the call. However, I did have a standing invitation from the local paper to write on any subject. I suggested a personal essay in time for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

The next day an editor phoned. "I hear you're writing a piece for us." "I already wrote it," I said. My productivity surprised even me. On Sept. 2, 2002, almost one year after my surgery, "Everything Changed" ran in The Kansas City Star. I got calls and letters.

I helped form a local support group, but I warned the members I was not a "group person." I might have only months to live, so I had to be choosy. Only one project really appealed to me. On the Internet I found cancer poems and asked friends to read them at an event, "Women, Interrupted: An Evening of Music and Poetry Dedicated to Cancer Survivors and Loved Ones Lost."

The event was a success but I wouldn't remain an activist long. Contrarian that I am, I started an argument.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Wit," about an English professor dying of ovarian cancer, was, in my opinion, one long I-admire-your-bravery speech. So what if it put ovarian cancer on the map?

My ovca sisters were appalled. I was a traitor. But I was thinking like a writer again. I even wrote a new poem, titled "The Oncologist and Her Ghosts."

On the anniversary of my diagnosis, I followed the lead of another group member--I sent my oncologist a gift with a card that read, "Do you remember what you were doing three years ago today? I do. You were saving my life."

It was beginning to look like I would have to learn how to live again instead of how to die. I decided to apply to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont, where I had won a scholarship in 1989.

Bread Loaf required 10 poems, and I couldn't just trot out my sleek, muscular, published warhorses. I had to write new poems and quickly whip them into shape. It was a humbling experience, but I got the application in the mail.

My ovca sisters don't hear from me much anymore. They probably think I'm in denial, that I believe I'm cured. They couldn't be more wrong.

Cancer may take me yet--next month, next year or in 10 years. Whenever death comes, my obituary will not call me a cancer survivor. I will die, simply, a writer.