The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises....I try but I can’t think of a single aspect of having cancer, start to finish, that isn’t an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed however I believe I choose to play each scene.
—Jenny Diski: "A diagnosis" (London Review of Books, 11 September 2014)
Jenny Diski is writing a series of articles in the LRB chronicling her experience of cancer, or, as she puts it in the first article in the series linked above, "another fucking cancer diary." Her articles have followed two threads: the first is about her disease—the medical system's depersonalizing and clinical (in both senses) treatment of cancer patients, together with the physical and emotional effects of her radiation therapy. The second thread is an extended reflection on her adolescence and young adulthood, when after a suicide attempt and her committal to a psychiatric hospital she was taken in by a woman she'd never met, a former classmate's mother: the writer Doris Lessing. Lessing, who died in 2013, fictionalized their relationship in two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1973).
Diski is writing "sidebars" to her LRB series on her blog, This and That Continued. The latest news is not good: she has radiation burns from her cancer treatments, and those treatments have also inflamed her pre-existing "mild pulmonary fibrosis," making breathing and movement difficult. And she fell recently and broke her wrist, which is causing her acute pain and making it difficult to type. She writes,
What started out as [a prognosis of] 2-3 years if I had the treatment is now an unknown quantity. I’m a miserablist, so it’s not surprising I’m feeling that death is rather imminent….So I’m not cheery or brave or serene at the moment….it hasn’t been a good week, and I’m fucking fed-up. And sorry for myself. What, should I keep a stiff upper lip?
—"A sidebar: How's it going?" This and That Continued, 19 Feb 2015
The same day that Diski posted this sidebar on her blog, another announcement was made in an even more public forum:
A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.Sacks goes on to anatomize his feelings on learning this news: a sense of serenity, of clarity, of focussing on the essential and detaching from daily cares and worries about the future. He writes,
I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.
—Oliver Sacks: "My own life: Oliver Sacks on learning he has terminal cancer," New York Times, 19 February 2015
This does not mean I am finished with life.Of course, Diski's and Sacks' disparate perspectives on their impending deaths reflect their basic dispositions. Diski is skeptical, critical (of the system in which she finds herself unwillingly embedded, and of herself), and pessimistic; Sacks is learned (the title of his piece is taken from the philosopher David Hume's brief autobiography, written when he discovered that he was dying), observant, and, if not optimistic about the ultimate outcome, at least positive in his approach (he repeatedly uses words such as "gratitude" and "privilege"). The prospect of imminent death seems to expose our truest self.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
Nonetheless, I can't help noting that their circumstances are very different. Sacks is 81, an age when it seems natural to come to terms with your own mortality. Diski is in her sixties, more than two decades younger than the most common age of death for British women. Sacks reports being virtually pain-free, while Diski is experiencing unremitting pain and frightening spells where she struggles to breathe. I think in her situation I, too, would have difficulty maintaining equanimity and detachment.
This page includes links to Diski's entire series so far, some of which require a subscription to the LRB (well worth the cost, which is under $2 per issue). Sacks reports that he has completed an autobiography which will be published in the spring. Our sad knowledge is that there will come a time, all too soon, when their voices will fall silent.
For more posts on Jenny Diski, see:
The Sixties: A personal history of a time of sweeping cultural, social and economic changes.
Making a Costume Drama Out of a Crisis: Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and other "Vicwardian" costume dramas.
For another post on Oliver Sacks, see:
Music As A Drug: Musicophilia: On "the overwhelming and at times helpless sensitivity of our brains to music."