California Dreaming: My Days on the Cancer Ward

Part of the Culture, Mind, and Society book series (CMAS)


One day in November, three years ago, I learned I had cancer. I should say, rather, that this was the moment the knowledge became official, took on an aura of authority. I walked along a line of trees into a hospital, on a bright sunny southern California day, found my way to the cancer center, and was escorted into a small office. The doctor gave me the final, official diagnosis, told me of the probable course of the cancer, and described possible treatments. As I listened, the knowledge that I had a deadly disease became coercive and compelling. Having cancer became my reality from that moment on. It became the absolute foundation of my life for the next three years.


Stem Cell Transplant Small World Brute Fact Hospital Room Nursing Aide 
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  1. 1.
    Gender identity gets muted, but resurfaces. Men and women alike were gaunt, hairless, dressed in the same gowns—rather sexless figures. No doubt patients differ in their personal responses to this, in ways going beyond the fact that relatively more women wore wigs and head coverings on and off the ward. It did not occur to me to really reflect on this until later, though, when it was thought I might have breast cancer, and had to have a mammogram and a lump removed from my breast. It is no surprise that cancer affects gender identity, or that different cancers are “gendered” in different ways. Being medically androgynous did not trouble me in the way being sick and lacking control over my life did, nor did it seem as significant as the prospect of dying—but I can understand how it might be difficult for people who identify themselves in terms of gender. Then again, I have to ask why I wore a blue robe on my forays outside my room.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Months later I thumbed through my copy and found the quotation: “I wished to live deliberately, to front the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Walden 61).Google Scholar

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© Steven M. Parish 2008

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