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The Most Meaningful – and Deceiving – Picture From My Cancer Journey

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It is often said that a picture tells a thousand words. Undoubtedly, a picture can speak to us on numerous levels, many of which transcend our attempts to assign to them meaningful words and that often defy the humble tools of language employed to try to capture their true essence. At times, however, there is much beyond what one picture can even transmit. Perhaps in no realm is this inadequacy more pronounced than when the subject of the picture is someone with cancer.

As many of those of us living with cancer will reluctantly admit, ours is not a disease that is most notable for its appearance. To the contrary, and often with tragic results, cancer often escapes detection — not only by loved ones but also by those directly afflicted with it themselves. Consequently, cancer can remain largely undetectable to the world around it.

When it comes to blood cancer, which is my particular burden, this lack of notoriety is frequently even more acute. I possessed no bulges, nor discolorations nor “irregular moles.” I had no lumps, other protrusions or any inexplicable bleeding. The only apparent physical manifestation was an increase in the circumference of my neck — an unfortunate byproduct of the lymph nodes in that neighborhood serving as hangouts for my overabundance of useless white blood cells. But even this required close examination to detect, the type of probing only an oncologist or, perhaps, an astute haberdasher might take note of. In fact, my blood cancer is often, and unhelpfully, referred to as the “invisible cancer.” It is also sometimes labeled the “good cancer,” an oxymoronic statement; when did cancer ever do anything good for anyone?

Despite its ability to remain under the radar, my cancer was — and remains — very, very real. Its potential to truncate my life, while hopefully delayed during my current remission, has not been eliminated. And that reality is with me every minute of every hour of every day. Yet, at this stage at least, I cannot allow myself to succumb to the often overwhelming fears and sorrow that this cancer, visible or not, carries with it. I must still struggle to appreciate what I have while I still have it.

With that in mind, the photo affixed to the top of this page may be seen through a bifurcated lens: one which shows simultaneously the truth and the absence thereof. In this picture, I am blessed to be surrounded by the three things that mean the most to me — my wife and my two sons. (Unfortunately, our dog was not with us that day or it really would have further cemented the part of the story that the superficial view of the photograph conveys.) All four of us are smiling, ear-to-ear. Our collective embrace reveals our closeness to each other and our happiness together. The photo accurately portrays the love we share and the importance of each of us to the others. In addition, although not visible in the photo, this particular picture was taken by another one of the most important people in my life — my longest friend and best man at my wedding, who was flanked by two of the other essential people in my universe, his two teenage daughters. Hence, when I look upon this picture, which I do daily as it is my principal photo to the social media universe, I see not only that which brings me the greatest joy, but am also reminded of those others just beyond the camera’s lens who similarly bolster the meaning of my existence.

What is not apparent from this picture, or its penumbra, is that which I was enduring when it was taken. At the time of this photo, I was midway through my course of chemotherapy — an awful, debilitating and psychologically crushing experience. Although at the exact moment when the shutter closed for this picture (metaphorically speaking as this was of course taken with an iPhone. Do they even have shutters? I know they don’t have film), I was not in the throes of the worst moments of physical suffering that is inseparable from what one must do to try and stave off cancer. While far from feeling at my best, my most significant physical issues at the time of this snapshot were the ever-present taste of metal in my mouth and the increasing soreness of my hands and forearms from the many exploratory needle pricks I received to find an unwilling vein to receive unwelcome infusions of toxic chemicals. Minor those these manifestations were, and invisible to nearly all, I was, nonetheless, as acutely aware as ever of the fragility of life and the brevity of its existence.

Part of the cruel irony of cancer — and there are more ironies than one can count — is that often moments spent with those who mean the most to you can involuntarily conjure up the most heart-wrenching of experiences. For it is these wonderful times with family and closest of friends that make one value life and all of its goodness the most. Yet that value is inescapably juxtaposed with the crushing reality that all of this is tragically ephemeral.

When friends and others come across my social media page, they see this photo of my happy family and the undeniable love for one another we share. I have received many comments exclaiming: “Such a beautiful family!”  “What a happy group you are!” and “You all look terrific!” I relish each of those kind expressions, but I know this picture speaks only in half-truths. There is so much more here than a mere thousand words can share.

Photo courtesy of author

Originally published: September 27, 2019
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