COLUMN

One among millions in the cancer wars

BOB LEVIN October 2 1995
COLUMN

One among millions in the cancer wars

BOB LEVIN October 2 1995

One among millions in the cancer wars

COLUMN

BOB LEVIN

We all have our stories, our personal legends. Maybe it was a war, or a parent’s death, or an early love. Time and retelling have smoothed them out by now, the way water polishes rocks; simple narratives, clear messages—we turn our pasts into Leave It to Beaver episodes. They are generally true enough, as stories go, and they give our lives shape, meaning, sparkle, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My personal legend begins something like this:

When I was 18 and certain of a bright if unspecified future, a doctor in the town where I went to university told me I had cancer and, if 1 were lucky, maybe five or six years to live. He was right about the cancer, wrong about the years . . . and so on, because it has been more than two decades now and I’m still around to tell the tale.

I got to thinking about this legend-making process two Sundays ago in a Toronto park. People were there by the hundreds, entire families decked out in Lycra and spandex or just jeans and T-shirts, running, cycling, Rollerblading, pushing strollers, as a rock band blared and the smell of hotdogs wafted through the drizzly air. They were there to raise money for cancer research (and to have a good time). And they were there to celebrate the fresh-faced, curly-haired young man who started it all more than 15 years ago, hop-stepping across Canada on one good leg and an artificial one of springs and hinges, drawing ever-larger crowds of teary well-wishers all the way from St. John’s, Nfld., to Thunder Bay, Ont., before the cancer spread to his lungs. Terry Fox—whose annual run now boasts more than 160,000 participants nationwide (plus countless more in 54 other countries) and has raised $144 million overall—long ago ceased to be just that crazy kid from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who wanted to skip across the second biggest nation on earth. He has become—against the

All across the country, people bring their own baggage to the Terry Fox Run, think their own thoughts. I brought my personal legend.

dread unknown of cancer—Canada’s own gritty legend of indomitability.

There is everything right with that.

People bring their own baggage to the Terry Fox Run, think their own thoughts. I brought my personal legend. It is one among millions in the cancer wars (the very word “war” is part of the romance), and if it illustrates nothing else—and overlaps with Fox’s story nowhere else—it is in the matter of youth. For I have come to believe that, if I had to get cancer, I could not have chosen a more perfect time. What does a young person know about limits, about calamity?

A young person—or at least this one, wellsheltered and blissfully naïve—is invincible. I have pictures to prove it. They were taken in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, on a canoe trip a few weeks before the first telltale fever. I am posing with friends in the self-consciously cool style of a record-album cover, and I have never looked better: healthy, happy, cocky, muscled up from a summer hauling furniture off trucks to buy my first car. Is it any wonder that when the fevers came I ignored them for months? Is there any doubt that when I could ignore them no longer, when that would-be Marcus Welby—whom I

suspected of enjoying the scene immensely—described “lymph nodes the size of baseballs” and suggested I start “living life quickly,” his words fell on wilfully deaf ears?

My year of treatment is a blur of emotions, of images. It helped, to begin with, that Dr. Welby had apparently not read a medical journal for a few years. I learned when I went to a major hospital that, although the disease was far advanced, there was a chance for total cure. But who remembers the odds? What I remember is my old high-school basketball coach squeezing my hand and saying: “It’s just another game.” I remember the little kids in the waiting room, their heads bald from chemotherapy, their faces breaking your heart. I remember being an angry patient, demanding and combative, my doctor absorbing most of it (with astonishing restraint, it seems now) while I absorbed his treatments, my part of the bargain: to be jabbed, radiated, cut open; to vomit, lose weight, hair; to lose, most distressingly, any sense of control, no matter what my legend says about doing battle.

Yet I did not think about death. Death was for other people; it was out there. (I am, I should add, a baby boomer, a member of a generation so famously obsessed with youth that we would go on to postpone marriages and parenthood and turn our middle years into a golden age for aerobics instructors, plastic surgeons and sex therapists. Death? To a kid raised on Peter Pan and Superman? Not a chance.) And then, mercifully, the treatment ended and I remember the aftermath best of all: in control again—running, lifting weights, eating voraciously. And feeling wonderful: the blessed absence of nausea, the fullness of flesh over bones, and the simple, ecstatic fact that, at least for the moment, the cancer was gone.

Only years later did I really reflect. You grow up and death becomes real. A good friend died of heart failure at 32. My fatherin-law and another friend died of malignant brain tumors. These were dear fine people, the very best. And if I once asked, “Why me?” I think of them and ask, ‘Why not me?” It is called perspective and it is what makes people adults. But, once upon time, I was better off without it.

In the Toronto park the other day, people posted notes giving their own reasons for running—the memories of loved ones: “My grandma and grandpa.” “A terrific dad.” “Mama.” “My dad.” Cancer touches almost everyone but seems most cruel when it takes the young. Terry Fox—who did not even know what a malignant tumor was when doctors first discovered one on his knee—was just 22 when he died in New Westminster, B.C., on June 28,1981, some 10 months after his Marathon of Hope ended. His special gift was to be too youthful and full of life, too stubborn and just plain brave, to know that he couldn’t possibly cover all those miles—a marathon’s-length 26 a day—on only one good leg, couldn’t possibly stir a nation to action. His special gift was to make his fight our fight, his legend our legend.