Photography Blog

Cancer Woman

One day a woman was convinced that she had cancer. She hadn't gone to see a doctor or anyone who had authority about the subject, but there was no question about it: she had cancer and she was going to die. She gave herself three months, maybe less. She wrote a long letter to her daughter, C, who was studying in Berlin. There was no need to leave anything for her husband who had been dead for at least ten years. She went to the hairdresser and cut off all her hair. Her hairdresser, also her friend of twenty years, refused to do it, so she had no choice but to do it herself. As the shaver slid across her head and her hair fell, she noticed a distinct difference in her look. She liked this new look. She was determined never to grow a single strand of hair again.

When friends asked what cancer she had with a sheepish, pitiful look on their faces, she proudly exclaimed that what she had was cancer of the heart. It was something so deep inside that doctors couldn't possibly detect it with their currently available technology, but those who had it knew. They had to know. It's the kind of cancer that wrecks havoc only on the inside. On the surface, a person suffering from cancer of the heart would look as normal as any pedestrian on the sidewalk. Chemotherapy doesn't work. Neither do carefully-brewed herbal soup of all variety. It was, according to the woman, a new kind of cancer that had no viable treatment as yet.

But she would be prepared. She decided that since she was going to die anyway, and so soon in the future, she would do something radical, something she had always wanted to do but hadn't because of various reasons. She had always dreamed of nude modeling, so on a cool Wednesday afternoon, she looked up the yellow pages, found an artist, convinced him to draw a nude picture of her, and then she left her home, not bothering to lock her door, because she had nothing more to lose anyway.

It took the artist six whole hours to finish his portrait of her. When she received her portrait from the artist, she burst into tears. Five years ago, she had lost both her breasts to cancer (yes, she was a cancer survivor before she became a cancer patient again), but now, in this portrait, she had breasts, big, full breasts that looked like those of a twenty-year-old. She didn't say another word, but thanked the artist and gave him a huge tip, then left the studio with the portrait.

For the next few weeks, she let the portrait lie in the cupboard, hidden from everyone's view. Her hair grew out a little, so she went to the hairdresser's again, and her friend refused to shave her hair for her again, so she did it herself again. Time flew past her as she set about arranging her funeral arrangements, writing her will, giving away some of her furniture (some she would leave behind for her daughter), and ten years soon passed. Ten years and still the cancer hadn't killed her. The woman blamed it on the nature of the cancer itself, which was, according to her, a little like AIDS. It would happen when it happens, that was her story.

When the woman turned sixty, she checked herself into a nursing home for the terminally-ill. The organization hadn't wanted to admit her as they didn't have concrete evidence of her illness, but she was so adamant that they had no choice. She was given a room with a television, and for the next few years she lay in bed, watching television and imagining that she was slowly dying away, that death would soon come take her, because, after all, she had cancer. Cancer of the heart.

In 2002, when she was seventy-five, her daughter and grandchildren organised a birthday party for her. There were hundreds of people at the party, but most of them were her daughter's friends. The ones that she had grown up with were mostly dead or senile, and she was one of the few who was still alive and well. The cancer had been in her for more than forty years and still it hadn't taken her. She thought about her friends, those she went to school with, those she caught her favourite movies with, those she cried with, and she saw her whole life spread in front of her eyes, like a timeline, a fucking timeline, and she couldn't help crying. When she was younger, she kept worrying that her family and friends would leave her someday. She didn't mind dying herself, but she didn't want her loved ones to die. But over the years, she had experienced so much dying around her that she finally understood: the only way to deal with all these people who leave you is to deal with it. There's no other way around it.

A few years later, when she was approaching eighty, clutching that long-ago portrait of her with those big, full breasts, she went to the rooftop of the tallest building in the neighbourhood and jumped down, without a second thought. She didn't leave a note, because everyone would know and understand that she had died of cancer. Cancer of the heart.

Rebecca TohComment