I Have Incurable Cancer. How Do I Live the Time I Have Left?

Death is injustice.

by Sophie K Rosa

13 March 2024

A woman with a headscarf hugs her young child, who looks sullen
Photo: andreaobzerova/Adobe Stock

This is the seventh instalment of Red Flags, Novara Media’s advice column for anti-capitalists (read the others here). Inspired by our columnist Sophie K Rosa’s book, Radical Intimacy, Red Flags explores how capitalism fucks up our intimate lives – not just our romantic relationships, but also our friendships, home lives, family ties, and experiences of death and dying – and what we can do about it. To submit a question to Sophie, email [email protected] or, if you’d like more anonymity, fill in this form.

Dear Sophie,

I’ve recently been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. I have no symptoms and so far no side effects from treatment either, which six months in is going really well. It is incurable but I could have three years, I could have 20 years (by which point who knows what new drugs will be available), it’s a complete unknown. And it won’t really ever become more known, I’ll have a scan every three months to check for progression which could happen at any time. Unsurprisingly the state offers absolutely no financial help as I am currently able to work. I feel so torn between wanting to work as little as possible so I can spend as much time as I can with my children (my daughter is 11 months old and my son is four years old), wanting to make memories and do exciting things while I can which costs money, and trying to save so they have a more secure future financially. Added to this we are in a two-bed flat so will have to move at some point but can’t afford a house where we are and I don’t want to leave our support network or uproot my children when we have no idea what tomorrow looks like – which I know to some degree is the case for everyone but is really brought into sharp focus in our situation. I just don’t know what to prioritise and thought a different perspective might be useful.

– Facing Impossible Choices

Dear Facing Impossible Choices,

I am touched that you trusted me to respond to this. You are dealing with the edges and depths of life; writing this feels like a great responsibility.

In my psychoanalytic studies, I think about the role of therapeutic neutrality. What purpose might it serve, to absent oneself – insofar as that is possible – when being with another’s suffering? This column is not talking therapy, however. I’d like to share a personal experience with you.

In my first year at university I was diagnosed with epilepsy. My seizures were unpredictable and catastrophic, and of unknown cause. The diagnosis marked a new chapter in my life, in which death feels like a bedfellow. Sometimes this proximate relation to mortality is front and centre of my awareness; other times it sits silent in my unconscious.

I’m sharing this not because our circumstances are comparable but because, in the case of your letter, I’d like to meet your vulnerability with my own. You are not alone, I’m going to die too, I don’t know when either, and I’m here for you.

I’m also trying to say something about the nature of uncertainty – which is the essence of life but also impossible to bear at times. Though our diagnoses are different, they both present the awful spectre of unknowability. I do not know why I am prone to life-threatening seizures that could strike at any time; you do not know how much longer you have, or what medical advances there might be.

It’s only recently – over a decade since my own diagnosis – that I’ve realised the profound impact it had on my ability to be present with and find enjoyment in life. I could not face it back then, and not facing it took its toll. I share this because it seems to me that you are facing your diagnosis. This strikes me as hopeful.

In A Dialogue on Love, queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote that her “deepest dread” about having breast cancer was not dying but

every bad thing
that threatens people I love;
for me, dread only

I may stop knowing
how to like and desire
the world around me.

In what you write, you seem to be present with your reality, with the uncertainty of everything, but also with your desire to enjoy your life. It seems so important that you hold on to this, that you continue knowing how to like and desire the world around you, as Sedgwick puts it. This also means accepting that it will not always feel possible for you to do so.

You want to spend as much time as possible with your children, doing exciting things and making memories. The imperative to work, in a country that will not support you otherwise, is getting in the way of this. And then there’s the immediate housing dilemma: a suitable home you can afford, or remaining close to your support network. In terms of further non-governmental support with finances, it sounds like you have researched this.

You write that you don’t know how to prioritise. I invite you to hold this question gently.
I keep getting targeted ads on Instagram for AI-powered scheduling apps promising me a solution to finite life sucked dry by capitalism. More time! Their existence reflects a universal struggle: deciding how to spend our time while alive. This struggle is especially acute for you.

Tempting as it may be, try not to pile additional stress on yourself in a hunt for the perfect priority list – I’m sure you know this, but it doesn’t exist.

Unlike the scheduling apps, I won’t promise you more time. But, for what it’s worth, I believe you will do your best as you decide how to balance work with enjoyment, given the conditions not of your choosing. However you organise your life, there will be – must be – grief and anger, because none of this is fair. These emotions will need attention, and tending to.

Facing our mortality underscores injustice, as you outline in relation to money, work and housing. What does resistance mean to you? It might be helpful to consider what it would look and feel like to resist the forces limiting your freedom – the same forces limiting everyone’s, brought into sharp relief by your diagnosis.

As Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals: “As we open ourselves more and more to the genuine conditions of our lives, women become less and less willing to tolerate those conditions unaltered, or to passively accept external and destructive controls over our lives and our identities.” Or, as the German Socialist Patients’ Collective put it in 1993: “Illness becomes the undeniable challenge to revolutionise everything – yes, everything! – for the first time really and in the right way.”

Can you reach out to others, and fortify relationships that will help you traverse the new landscape of your life? How can these networks bolster you – including by conspiring with you to resist, whatever that means to you?

“The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself… A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care,” wrote the artist, writer and musician Johanna Hedva in their essay Sick Woman Theory.

It might feel strange or difficult, but ask people directly to collaborate with you on your care, where you can. In writing to me, you’ve already made a start. I believe your “answer” lies in relationships that can keep you – amidst all the agonies – present to life’s joys.

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist and the author of Radical Intimacy.

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