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Life, Death, and In Between

Image by Kimson Doan

By Maria Behan

The pieces I’ve written for The Wild Word, beginning with its very first issue, have focused on U.S. politics. I’ve never felt inclined to share a personal essay, and certainly never thought about including excerpts from my journal. Until now.

I’ve always found the belief that “everything happens for a reason” and “there are no coincidences” implausible and frankly, smug. But it seemed like uncanny symmetry when the one-year anniversary of being diagnosed with cancer coincided with the date the hospital assigned for the removal of the chemo port a surgeon had implanted in my chest so that nurses could pump me full of poisons that may have saved my life. Then I noticed that the deadline for submitting a piece to this final issue of The Wild Word fell on that same date—and most uncanny of all, that this issue’s theme is “Live.” All that made me think, “Hmm, maybe it’s time to write about this cancer lark.” (I use “lark” the sarcastic way the Irish do; preferring it to the American earnestness of “journey.”)

I have struggled with a lot of things since my cancer diagnosis in May 2023. Including whom I shared my news with. And how. So this feels weird.

People I admire who’ve been diagnosed with cancer seem to have easily “gone public” in their communities and on social media, sharing their health status, in part, as a way of warning and educating others. But something in me—likely something bratty—rebels against being the poster child for a disease. Especially cancer, a disease that doesn’t play fair. One that cheats, seems to retreat, then too often returns to finish what it started.

I confess that before I was involuntarily packed off to cancer camp, I tended to regard people with the disease the way I did when I lived in Manhattan and a ruckus broke out on the subway or street. I’d try not to see, to detach, because it might be disturbing or dangerous to register and react to what was happening. Callow, callous, and cowardly, I know. So maybe it’s karmic revenge that I, who’d always identified with hale and feisty Jo in Little Women, had suddenly morphed into wan and mortality-stalked Beth.

Now that I’m “out,” I’ll say to anyone reading this the same things I’ve said to friends and family: Get all your screenings as early as possible. The good news is that cancer is more treatable than it has ever been; the very bad news is that it’s far more prevalent. So get your colonoscopy, your mammogram, your PSA test, your pap smear. And listen to your body. If anything seems off, heed your Spidey sense. Be pushy with your doctor if you have to; exaggerate symptoms if that’s what it’ll take to get checked out. Healthcare institutions want to save money. You want to save your life.

Staring Down a Monster

I didn’t tell anyone about my cancer diagnosis for the first few days; after that, I only shared with close friends and family. I dreaded telling people, afraid their reactions would crack my carapace of stunned numbness. The thing I dreaded most was seeing tears spring up in someone’s eyes. That would’ve made me feel like a goner. So I only shared my news via phone calls or email.

For me, and I think many who’ve been blindsided by cancer, the period right after diagnosis was the worst. Doctors offer advice, but leave decisions about treatment to the patient. Suddenly, I felt like I needed to learn everything possible about a disease I’d always pretended wasn’t there.

The very first article I came across during my initial internet search, a piece in The New York Times, used the adjectives “brutal” and “horrific” to sum up the two primary treatment approaches (and their possible downsides) for people in my boat. Not exactly enticing options. I opted for “brutal,” which was also the approach my doctors advised, which included radiation; chemotherapy; and most likely, surgery.

After five tough months of treatment, last December I learned that radiation and chemo had worked their dark magic, and my doctors could no longer find any sign of cancer. So I’m able to skip surgery—for now and possibly forever. I feel relieved, but not as “yippee” as I’d expected. Part of it is that I’d tamped down so much emotion since my diagnosis, I seem to be stuck in that mode. I’m also cognizant that cancer could reappear at any time, particularly during the next two years, which is when recurrence is most likely. So my current status is that I’m back among the living and hoping to stay here. But even if I do, I’ll never be the same again.

Part of the change came right away, and it’s a good one: I’ve mellowed, and as a neurotic New Yorker, mellow is a novelty for me. I have a broader perspective, so annoyances that used to bedevil me are now dismissed pretty quickly. And it’s easier for me to see and feel the humanity and connection I share with others, including the cancer patients I used to try not to see.

I’d like to say I’ve acquired the knack for relishing every moment, but no dice. First of all, it’s hard to savor life’s juiciness when you’re so wiped out from chemo that it’s hard to summon the strength to reach for the TV remote control. And I felt bitter (and a little tragic) when neighbors, seeing me heading to my car with an ice cooler, would kid me about the life of leisure that afforded me time for mid-week picnics—when, in fact, my cooler was filled with the ice packs I’d strap to my feet and hands during chemo infusions in an attempt to hold off cold sensitivity (it worked) and nerve damage in my feet and hands (it didn’t).

But even during my worst days of feeling shitty and doomed, there were glimmers of joy. A few times, it was the sight of a slightly faded but still beautiful moon hanging around on a sunny morning. I’d think, “I’m glad I’m here to see that.” Another surge of joie de vivre came just last week, whizzing through the California countryside while dancing in the driver’s seat to Toots and the Maytals’ “Funky Kingston.” I hadn’t heard that song in years, and I thought, “Damn, it’s good to be around to hear that song.” I’d get a kick out of the daytime moon and the propulsive beats of Toots and the gang under just about any circumstances, but cancer has deepened my appreciation of those moments, because I now know how close I am—we all are—to maybe missing them.

Having a possibly terminal disease makes you feel your mortality, viscerally and vividly. Not only can see yourself in your deathbed, others can envision you there, too. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but that’s how it goes. And when you’re dealing with cancer—or at least when I’m dealing with cancer—“that’s how it goes” feels like the only truth you can count on. Getting cancer is random. Getting over cancer is random. Yes, you may be able to do things to improve your chances of avoiding or defeating it…but in a lot of cases, it’s all comes down to your mutating cells.

I identified with the main character in the movie Anatomy of a Fall when she bemoaned the fact that she didn’t feel a sense of deliverance after being acquitted of murder: “If you lose, you lose; it’s the worst thing that can happen. But if you win, you expect some reward. But there isn’t any. It’s just over.”

That observation struck me as equally applicable to cancer. But with cancer it’s not over. Or maybe it is over, but even so, the shadow is still with you. Always.

I hope that I’m nowhere near the end; indeed I aspire to embark on what journalist and cancer patient Rod Nordland has dubbed a “second life.”

But just in case, I’ve been considering the music I’d like played at my memorial service. I’m pretty sure I want to end with David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” segueing into a soprano belting out Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Don’t worry, I know I’m not the intended honoree of the hymn. It’s just that I’ve always loved its soaring, almost literally heavenly sound. And ever since I was a (morbid) kid, I’ve imagined “Ave Maria” as my memorial’s big closer. One that would make people—maybe even some who didn’t know me—weep, or at least mist up. I may have trouble crying myself, but that doesn’t mean I want dry eyes at my funeral.

Maria Behan writes fiction and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Stinging Fly, Huffington Post, The Irish Times, DailyKos and Northern California Best Places.

Fragments from my Cancer Diary

I didn’t tell anyone about my diagnosis for a few days—in part because telling people would make my cancer “real,” in part because I loathe the idea of being the subject of pity. But I started writing about my diagnosis and feelings the afternoon a doctor gave me the bad news. Here are some excerpts:

From the first entry:

“When the doctor called about an hour ago to tell me I had cancer, he seemed annoyed that I hadn’t picked up on the heavy hints he’d given me immediately after last week’s procedure. What I wanted to say (but didn’t) was that after all the fentanyl and whatever else they’d pumped into me so they could root around in my body, for all I knew he, I, and the nurse had slipped off to Vegas for a dirty weekend. All I can remember about the period right after that procedure was giggling at the impossibility of getting my flip flops on over the hospital socks they’d given me. I tried several times, and each try seemed more hilarious than the one before.

The next morning I woke up with a jolt, sober and alarmed. Rereading the post-procedure information they’d sent me home with, I registered the words “a mass suspicious of cancer.” Even then, I didn’t have the sense to freak out. On a walk with a friend that day, I’d joked that the report might as well have concluded with ‘R.I.P.’ and a skull and crossbones. I’m not sure I was being brave in the face of possible serious illness, probably more like cocky. There isn’t much cancer in my family; we’re more likely to be felled by heart attacks.

‘Stay positive,’ was the doctor’s lame injunction at the end of his grim call. Easy for you to say, asshole!

After I hung up, I immediately got back on the phone to start cancelling things. Small things like an appointment to get my hair cut (why do anything to hair that may soon fall out?). And bigger ones like the reservations I’d made for a planned trip to Sicily.

My eyes welled up when the doctor gave me the news, and there’s been some more welling at a few different points today. Like now. But no weeping. I’ve heard it’s healthy because it releases stress hormones, and god knows I need healthy more than ever. But I don’t like to cry—and apparently, sometimes I can’t even when I need to.”

Two days later: 

“I’m not sure if my ability to live with the news of my diagnosis without sharing it is a sign of strength or pathology. Or maybe just fear. Fear of breaking down, of seeming pathetic to others. Fear of making it real.

Fuck, it is real.

Yet weirdly, I feel less distracted and more in the ‘now,’ than I have in a long time. Maybe more than I ever have. And I don’t feel stressed, or at least I’m not registering it. Instead I feel like the protagonist of a French existentialist novel: resigned, doomed, and faintly noble.

But who knows how long that will last. And who knows what lies ahead.”

A few days after that:

“My sang froid didn’t last. I wasn’t aware of it before my diagnosis, but when you have cancer, the final decision about your treatment regimen is in your hands. Which feels crazy, because not only am I not an oncologist, I’ve never even played one on TV.”

A week later:

“The past days have been devoted to obsessive research, trying to comprehend articles in medical journals and presentations at oncology conferences. It feels like my life depends on understanding how best to treat my disease. I majored in English, not biology. This may not end well.

It’s Memorial Day, and as I type this, I wonder how long it will be until I’m memorialized myself.”

After a brief break from researching treatment plans: 

“Back to the growing and possibly metastasizing elephant in the room.”

After scanning the supermarket aisles and wondering if I’d be the first person in the store to shuffle off this mortal coil: 

“There’s the knowledge that mortality claims us all; and there’s the grim shock, tinged with incredulity, at the realization that there’s a decent chance I’ll be claimed sooner than others.”

Before I started radiation treatment:

“Life sure has taken a turn, but life does that sometimes. Fucking life! But if I can, I’d like to hold onto it.”

From an email to a friend:

“I sometimes worry that I’m not getting the ‘live every moment to its fullest’ charge you’re supposed to get when the grim reaper is sniffing around. But then again, I’m relieved and even a little proud that I’m approaching things in a (mostly) clear-eyed, non-panicking manner. I’m reading a lot and streaming a ton of movies, foregoing the junk because who knows how many books and films I’ve got left? And who wants their last movie to be “The Devil Wears Prada?” I’m also eating as much delicious food as my queasy stomach allows, since chemo may put a stop to my ability to taste it.

Did you know chemo can even make you lose your fingerprints? I tell you, I’m about to embark on one hell of a freaky adventure…”

What chemo was like:

“I’m up an hour before sunrise this morning, which is uncharacteristic. Alas, I don’t think this is a new go-getting normal for me…it’s the steroids I’m on during the height of chemotherapy. My sessions are every other week, and involve three days of getting pumped full of god-knows-what via the grenade-shaped device I’ve had plugged into the port in my chest since my day in the infusion center yesterday. Tomorrow, they’ll remove the pump, and exhaustion like I’ve never felt before—the chemo swoon—will descend for a couple of days.”

Towards the end of chemo:

“I hate when I catch people who know I have cancer furtively sizing me up. Some will never see me the same way again. Hell, I will never see myself the same way again.”

After sorting through old credit card statements:

“I feel jealous of the woman who’d racked up those charges for international flights, pensiones in Rome and Florence, museums in Dublin and London, and restaurants in Paris and Marrakesh. I am a different person now. And if I make it through this, I will be yet another person—one who will devour travel and pleasure and expanded horizons like never before.”

A text I didn’t send to someone close to me: 

“I can see how sad I make you, and I hate that.”

On my appreciation of the nurses in the chemo-infusion clinic:

“What must it take to get up morning after morning and plunge into an environment that requires not only precision and speed, but compassion and warmth? The ability to look into moribund and frightened visages…and smile? Where do they find the strength? The goodness?”

A few quotes from my favorite “cancer read,” Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality

  • “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?’”
  • “…this year of living dyingly…”
  • Hitchens describes Voltaire, “who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”

On finishing chemo: 

“My ninth and final infusion of oxaliplatin is tomorrow. I wonder if my wizened tears will flow once I come to the end of that last long afternoon in the infusion clinic. Maybe I’ll cry with relief that I’ll be done with treatments—forever, or at least for now. Or with sorrow for my fellow clinic denizens. Some make me sad because they look young or outwardly healthy, others because they look old or insanely frail. I wonder if I’ll feel like I’m abandoning them. I wonder if I am abandoning them—or if I’ll be rejoining their ranks before long.”

Sad-sack scraps saved in my phone’s Notes app:

  • “My irradiated, chemo-curdled soul.”
  • “Me: shaking like a leaf on a thinly rooted tree.”
  • “As I wait in a bleak hospital hallway to be called in for my MRI, the piped-in music is “No Place like Home for the Holidays.”


  1. Anonymous

    Well said Maria

  2. Anonymous

    I relate to this on many levels, being newly diagnosed and standing on the precipice of what to do now.

  3. Anonymous

    So honest. Enlightened. Wry. Beautiful.
    From one of your friends who didn’t know.

  4. Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing this. I hope it gets shared widely, especially among those undergoing similar circumstances.

  5. Anonymous

    I’ve read all your columns and everything you write is so starkly true no matter the subject. This piece is so raw and clear. Glad you made it.


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