“Unfortunately.” The word haunts me, like something misaligned within my inner planetology. It punctuated every meeting with my urology oncologist on November 16, one month ago.
There are certain red flag terms in the cancer world, words that seem to come out of the quotidienne everyday but in cancer talk light up with dread or hope because they translate to your chances of living beyond the year. Concerning. Not concerned. Highly concerning. Suspicious. Highly suspicious. Low suspicion. Worrisome. Aggressive. Highly aggressive. Radioactive buzzwords, their meaning spills out everywhere, infecting your consciousness and, I’m sure of it, your subconscious. They are the elevated moments in the novel of your life, the moment when Red Riding Hood realizes her dear grandmother is a wolf or Dorothy discovers the Great Oz is a weak, vulnerable, old man. Or they are the amulets, the symbols, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Bailey’s bright yellow shirt with blue parrots in Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the secret keys that unlock a world of meaning.
Two weeks earlier, at the beginning of November, the pathology report from the tumor removed from my bladder at the University of Chicago Medical Center revealed I had a highly aggressive form of bladder cancer. Because I was in otherwise excellent health, I and my healers thought my chances of being cured were good. I rode that wave of hope (cautiously) to that word on November 16. “Unfortunately,” the oncologist said, “surgery is out of the question if the cancer has spread to your lungs.”
I had been scheduled for a series of aggressive chemotherapy treatments followed by a surgery to remove my bladder. But now this oncologist was saying all surgery bets were off. That is when I started spinning in a new orbit. My planets had misaligned and left me with a fate I could not comprehend. With a fresh new scan glowing on his screen, the oncologist waved his hand at some swollen lymph nodes and said if a lung biopsy confirmed spread, I would be incurable—terminal, stage four. All treatment would be aimed instead at making my life as comfortable as possible for the time I had left.
Then, fourteen days later, at the beginning of December, my compass changed once again. A lung biopsy showed no spread. But those intervening two weeks were some of the most sober and unflinchingly honest days I’ve spent with myself. Who was I without the accomplishments, the job, the social media accounts, my likes and dislikes, opinions and desires? Everything fell away. Any pause in the day or the spools of thought could be interrupted by the word “unfortunately.”
I’m a literary scholar with experience researching the history of science. “Unfortunate” and its opposite “fortunate” can be traced back to Ptolemaic astronomy. Individuals and nations were said to be “fortunate” when the planets aligned and “unfortunate” when they misaligned. These thoughts were still in existence in the Italian Renaissance especially in Machiavelli’s novel The Prince, whose 25th chapter used “fortuna” and its opposite to refer to the alignment or misalignment of the planets.
So, lately, as I go through chemo as a stage three and anticipate surgery, I find myself thinking about all the ways I am fortunate, whereby no intention or work of my own the heavens have aligned in my friends, my daughter, my husband, my broader family, my faith, and my curious artistic mind. In the past I would have been shy to announce my fortunes because it might seem like bragging. I don’t mind shining light on my gifts now. I have to.