How is surviving cancer like fighting aliens?
Updated: 5 days ago
Of cancer survival and fear
Have you ever watched the original Alien movie?
If you did, think back. What’s the one scene that sticks out in your memory?
Take your time.
There’s a pretty good chance we’re remembering the same scene. If not, I just have to say one phrase and it’s there in your mind.
(If you haven’t seen the film, don’t worry. You’ll get the point.)
I saw Aliens only once many years ago, and I can remember it like it was last night.
Here's how it starts: A small crew docks their shuttle onto a large cargo spaceship. It’s eerily dark and totally empty. No sign of its crew. Where did everyone go?
They proceed to walk the darkened halls to investigate. Soon, some of them venture into a large area filled with strange gooey things.
While they're in there, a strange starfish-like thing attaches itself to a crew member’s face, covering his mouth, cheek and eyes. By protocol, he’s supposed to be left behind, but the rest of the crew members vote. He gets to stay and is taken to the infirmary.
A little while later, they find him still on the infirmary bed, but with no starfish to be seen.
Where did it go?
But he’s conscious. He seems okay.
Cut to a scene of the crew eating around the mess room table, laughing. Suddenly, the afflicted crew member begins to convulse and scream. They rush him back to the infirmary. His pain gets worse.
Then out of his stomach pops a vicious little head – all teeth and wicked eyes – attached to a little body with a bunch of limbs, kind of like a scorpion. It takes a quick look around, gives a violent hiss at the recoiling people around it, then jumps up and skitters out the door.
Needless to say, the poor crew member dies.
Even so many years later, it makes my skin crawl.
One of the things that makes the scene so powerful is that the growth of the gestating baby happened inside the crew member’s body. No one knew it was there – least of all its host, until it had eaten him from the inside.
It’s amazing how much damage can be caused by such a small package.
And by the time that evil little creature reveals itself, its insidious, painful work has done its worst. There’s no way to save the crew member.
--- The unique trauma of cancer --
The definition of trauma is fairly loose. Psychology Today defines it as “severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event.”
For almost every cancer patient, the treatment phase and its aftermath pass the Trauma Test.
The treatment can be painful and literally suck the life out of you. You may go through one or more life-threatening surgeries. Fear is ever-present, since every type of cancer carries a possible or likely death sentence, and a high cure rate for your particular type of cancer is no guarantee it won’t come back. And the treatment can leave permanent damage.
Then there’s the high chance of getting secondary, unrelated cancer.
You can find yourself lost. You want to find meaning in the mess and the fear, but It’s nowhere to be seen.
I think that explains why there are so many books written by survivors about their treatment and recovery.
It's also why so many survivors take on extreme physical goals. Probably the most extreme I’ve heard is a guy who did 30 half-triathlons in 30 days, despite still being in treatment.
Coming out of treatment, you want to somehow make sense of what happened. You want to affirm life. You want to fight death.
After all the fear, repeated surgeries and ongoing complications of my second brain tumor treatment, I was completely overwhelmed and disoriented. It felt like I was standing on a mountain top and yelling “WTF?!” at the top of my lungs.
That’s why, a week after chemo ended, I started training for my first 50k trail run, to take place 9 months later. And why I hired a film maker named Adam Harum to make a film about the journey, called Proof of Life.
It all goes back to baby alien. That little egg in the crew member that grew inside him and tore him to pieces.
Let’s take the analogy further.
Suppose the crew member was brought back to life through radical medicine and heroic measures that left him crippled and in constant pain with a foggy brain.
Can you imagine being that guy? He’s had a living being jump out from his belly. Imagine the questions that would bounce around in his head:
“What if there are more eggs inside there ready to turn into more little baby aliens?”
“If it happened once, why wouldn’t it happen again?”
“That little twinge of pain just now – is that just indigestion or a tight stomach muscle? Or is Baby Alien back?”
He has two choices. He can curl up in a ball or he can get to his feet, give a war cry, and start tracking down those f*cking aliens.
And that, I think, is why we cancer survivors often wrestle with fear for a decade or more after treatment. It's why we write books and take on difficult physical feats.
To make sense of this bizarre thing that happened.
And so we don’t curl up in a ball in the corner.
Does this resonate with you? Leave a comment below.