Death by Immortality

Cancer is a tainted bonus


“If we seek immortality, then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.”
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, Emperor of All Maladies

“(mutations in cancer genes accumulate with aging; cancer is thus intrinsically related to age)”
—Siddhartha Mukherjee, Emperor of All Maladies

IN 2015, my mother turned 70. A good Christian woman, she proclaimed that she had achieved her threescoreandten promise. Anything after that was a “bonus.” The joke about the “bonus” has been going on since she turned 65, a joke-not-joke rooted, in part, in her family history: a father who died at 73, a mother who died (of cancer) at 71, a husband who, carelessly, forgot to line up for the bonus and died at 51. Less than six months after turning 70, she was diagnosed with cancer.

Cancer is also a bonus. Cancer cells are “immortal”: they replicate incessantly, refusing to obey signals to moderate their speed or to die. They are, in fact, death-defying cells that kill. Immortality cannot survive in our bodies. From a cancer cell’s perspective, debility, that condition most associated with aging, is for other cells, cells that do not know how to adapt, how to beat death, how to live forever. That cancer cells produce debility because they are immortal speaks to one of the central contradictions of aging: increases in life expectancy are heralded as signs of progress, even as debility inevitably accompanies such increase. The bonus is tainted. According to cancer researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee, rates of cancer will increase as life expectancy increases, moving from one in four to, possibly, one in two. The bonus is tainted.

Cancer — immortality:debility — generates and shifts social worlds: friends send their favorite anti-cancer recipes, sourced from the internet; other friends, more familiar with cancer, demand lists of symptoms, producing and heightening anxiety; the prayerful line up to offer sacrifices on your behalf; each glance directed toward you is filled with questions you cannot answer and demands you cannot process; your post-bonus life, once a source of pride, is now described as a curse. Strangers become a comfort. You seek the calming presence of people who know nothing about you, who assume nothing, who nod and smile and make casual conversation about the weather and the price of tomatoes.

Time breaks into effects —

hot flashes
joint pains
bone pain, which is not joint pain
hair loss

— You know the treatment is working because you have no appetite, you have to vomit, you have diarrhea, your hair falls out, your body is unable to regulate its heat. You have never paid attention to healthy habits of drinking water. Now, you gulp five to six 500ml bottles of water a day. It becomes difficult to be environmentally conscious. You have cancer. Why worry about carcinogens?

Your world contracts.

Carcinogen: capable of generating the world of cancer

Cancer shrinks worlds and expands them (one in four, one in three, one in two—cancer builds populations, cancer populates itself). Each conversation generates yet another list: a grandmother with liver cancer, a cousin with leukemia, an aunt with breast cancer, an uncle with suspected prostate cancer. Conversations with friends add to this population: “my mother (who died),” “my father ( . . . ),” “my mother (who survived),” and where no information is offered whether one’s relative died or survived, I dare not ask. Perhaps there is some comfort to be found in knowing that many others have experienced this, but I am not yet in a place where such information yields anything more than sadness and rage. Each story shrinks the world — cancer feels like an ever-expanding web, extending everywhere, touching everyone, binding us to what feels like its inevitability, forming us by what feels like its inevitability.

Aging is inevitable

Cancer feels inevitable

It’s becoming difficult to distinguish aging from cancer — another name for aging might be cancer, or does this go too far?

(cancer gathers — we have traveled to India for treatment and are meeting other Kenyans and hearing stories of hope and generosity, of neighbors and friends and relatives who tell loved ones, “go to India, and we will find ways to send money for your treatment.” Love gathers, money is gathered, hope is gathered, worlds are extended, and this is something beyond neoliberalism’s atomizing power. I know that such acts of private donation are subtended by the state’s failure to provide public health, but I hope that practices of gathering indicate a public spirit waiting to be reactivated, waiting to transform our relations to each other, beyond neoliberalism’s privatizing grasp)

Cancer is the bonus that exhausts.

Bodies break as they age. We think we know what this means: hair thins, bones become brittle, muscles deteriorate, instincts slow, cognition declines. Cells grow old and die — they forget what they used to know. Cancer is a different kind of breaking: homeostasis, a word I learned in Standard 5, explains it in terms I can understand. Properly functioning bodies are systems in balance. They make sure we don’t get too hot or too cold, for instance. Cells are policed and policing structures.

Cancer refuses regulation. It embraces and creates unregulated growth.

Unregulated growth: a neoliberal wet dream.

Pulled into cancer’s gravitational field, it’s easy to forget that it’s about co-aging: my mother is no longer 40 and I am no longer the age I was when she was 40. Care work means something different now, as my own body is breaking down: my knees hurt, my back hurts, my feet need orthopedic shoes, my hair is thinning, my mental health is changing. She cannot lift and carry and I cannot lift and carry as I could when I was younger. We are breaking down together.

Care work is making do: learning to admit you need a break, learning to admit that compassion is a breath away from resentment, learning to admit that pain travels across bodies and it is unbearable to share pain, learning to admit that kinship is always about uneven distribution of labor — and queers always get shafted. Reflection comes late at night or early in the mornings before the rhythms of care set in: wake up, cook breakfast, wash dishes, ensure medication is taken, track side effects of medication, prepare tea, wash dishes, prepare for visitors, cook for visitors, wash dishes, ensure medication is taken, prepare more meals, wash dishes — busyness is both distraction and relief, and exhaustion can be a friend, pushing aside resentment-generating reflection.

Carcinogenic: generating the world of cancer.

Carework: a feminist attempt to describe the economics of care, to refuse to privatize care. Still, the pull of care makes it difficult to quantify work, to think of work as care rather than duty, to stop believing that attaching work to care taints care. One struggles to map when care bleeds into work, how to point to that moment, how to keep available a kind of care that is not work. Work is a demand. Care is not. Or is it?

Carework.Care:work.Care/work.Care/Work.Care-work.Care-Work. Care:Work.CareWork.

Why does it feel obscene to start with work?


It’s easier to ask how care works than it is to ask how work cares. “Easier” is a gendered and gendering term: care is more approachable, more gendered as approachable, more gendering as approachable. Work, on the other hand, feels impersonal. It is children in primary school who, when asked what their fathers did, answered “business,” a response that I never understood. Mothers taught and nursed and cooked and traded and farmed — their work could be named and seen. Fathers did “business”; fathers worked. Work was meant to be difficult and opaque; work was gendered as masculine A crude binary, sure, but crude binaries have force. To ask how care works permits us to imagine human action in a way that foregrounding how work might care does not: work is alienating, the idea of work is alienating. Yet, to position work as alienating, to expect it to be alienating, is to begin accepting that care should not be part of work, to accept that work should be unpleasant. I want to shield care from work’s unpleasantness, even as work provides the best language to describe how my body feels after lifting and carrying and washing and cleaning.

sotto voce: care, with its unending demands, its appeals to affect and duty, its resistance to regulation, might incarnate neoliberalism more than work
one cannot dwell on this

Carcinogenic: generating a cancerous imagination — growths, excrescences, excess, bonuses.

In emails to friends, I say that I am trying to inhabit a world apart from the one generated by cancer, but my emails mention tests and chemotherapy and side-effects. Writing is not self-care — it cannot be. Each word, each phrase, each sentence, each paragraph costs too much, demands too much, extracts too much, stretches too much, beyond what a bonus-imagination can imagine. Too much, approaching exhaustion, where debility meets immortality.

Writing cannot escape the pull of cancer — it is also carcinogenic, produced in and by and through the world of cancer. One tries to occupy the interval of care(:/-.)work. To write not only in the interval, but also as the interval, as what seeps across care and work, what slices across, what cleaves, what lingers.

I struggle to within and against cancer’s pull, to find a place unmarked by carcinogenesis, but this writing is carcinogenic, produced by the world cancer creates, and marked by the metaphors it provides. Language shifts now: growth loses the innocence and pleasure attached to planting seasons, the anticipation of watching flowers bloom and fruits ripen, the joy attached to fertile gardens that will create and feed communities.

How can I not mourn such a loss?

It feels silly and self-indulgent to claim that my metaphors have been invaded, no, stolen. Yet, so much care(:/-.)work is struggling to articulate what feel like petty losses, struggling not to minimize the losses that accompany care(:/-.)work: language, sleep, privacy, dreams, laughter, rudeness.

I miss locking myself away for days, sitting with my silences.

I think, now, of Shakespeare’s boast that writing creates immortality, but this, I realize, is not an immortality predicated on reading. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see”: it is enough that the potential to be seen exist for writing to give life.

“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see”: are these lines not haunted by debility?

Symptom: shortness of breath
Symptom: failing eyesight
Symptom: collapsed lung
Symptom: cataracts
Symptom: failing

Perhaps these lines are about writing in the interval, writing as the interval, that s/place of immortality:debility. Something lingers: immortal cells harvested from a black woman.

(Cancer is attachment and extension: Audre Lorde, Susan Sontag, Henrietta Lacks

Between immortality and debility, within immortality:debility, there is the interval. My mother, a good Christian woman, populates her interval with prayers. I write. Together, we wait.