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Cancer Doesn't Care Whether You Want to Go

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Cancer Doesn't Care Whether You Want to Go

Cancer Doesn't Care Whether You Want to Go

Cancer Doesn't Care Whether You Want to Go

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12159105/13802087" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

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The following essay is from the NPR My Cancer weekly podcast:

I'm a huge movie fan. As far as war movies go, Saving Private Ryan pretty much set the standard. Children of Men, an under-appreciated movie from last year, had some amazing battle scenes. When you're talking war movies though, there's really only one: Apocalypse Now.

The music. That movie changed the way Americans go to war. I don't think there's a pilot or soldier who flies in a helicopter who isn't humming that music to him- or herself. At the same time, I can't imagine any orchestras perform The Ride of the Valkyries these days. Everyone in the audience would be thinking about the movie.

But there's one other part of that amazing sequence that caught my eye. It probably only lasts for two or three seconds. When the helicopters are landing and the soldiers are jumping out, one young soldier looks at the camera and yells, "I'm not going!"

That became sort of a running joke for my fellow producers and me back when we used to cover various hotspots. Whenever we were assigned to go someplace that no one in their right mind would go, one of us would invariably say "I'm not going. I'm not going." Well we thought it was funny every time we said it.

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These days I think of that line a little differently. I understand why that kid said that. It's just that my war is different. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, when the doctor looks at you and tells you that your old life is over, that you're about to enter a strange and terrifying new world, your brain is screaming, "I'm not going, I'm not going." You only have a few seconds to process the doctor's words, and then, whether you want to or not, you're going into Cancer World.

And at each fork in the cancer road, you scream those words to yourself, over and over again. Starting chemo? I'm not going. Brain surgery? I'm not going. Radiation, Radio Frequency Ablation, Cryoablation. Verterbroplasty? I'm not going, I'm not going, I'm not going.

Except that you know you are. Even though that next step is going to be scary, probably painful, you know that you're going to go. You don't really have a choice. In Apocalypse Now, another soldier runs back to the chopper and drags the kid out into the battle. The kid's instincts were right. Who would want to step off into the hell of combat? But I watch that scene and I think every time that the kid knows he's really going to go. It's just that for a few seconds, he wants to feel that he has some control over what's happening to him. That whether he gets out of the chopper or not really is up to him.

I feel the same way. Sometimes I try to fool myself into believing that I have some control over what happens to me too. But I know better. Even when you have a pretty good idea of how the battle's going to turn out, sometimes you have no choice. You get out of the helicopter and hope for the best.

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