The Comeback

They say every cancer survivor remembers the moment they got the news: hey, you have cancer. Yeah, stage IV, and you’re probably going to die within a year.

It was past midnight. We were in the ER. Pre-COVID. (We’ve since learned to take small miracles when and where they come). Radiology had called ahead, and a team of oncologists waited to greet us upon arrival.

“Can I get you anything, a sedative or something?” the ER nurse’s sincerity and genuine compassion feel like a relic from a distant century.

My knee-jerk response to crisis is irony. Mordant irony. So I said, “A cigarette and a cup of coffee would be great.”

This was the moment I fell in love with nurses, all of them. She returned with a cup of bad coffee in a styrofoam cup and a nicotine patch. I drank the coffee. And broke a 30-year nicotine addiction in a single sip.

I’d been experiencing symptoms for months already–weight loss, lack of appetite, dizzy spells, impaired vision–and finally went to my GP who suspected cancer, but didn’t tell me that. Guess she wanted to break it to me gently. The first disconcerting moment was when I dialed the number she gave me for blood tests. The voice on the other end of the line: “Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, how can I help you?”

Whoah. Okay then.

No one ever wants to go there. Neither the doctor, nor the patient. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. So while my GP was hoping for the best and sending me to specialists to test for vestibular disorders, vision, bloodwork, she was at the same time preparing me for the worst.

At our third visit with the ENT–he’d already performed a battery of tests–he wanted to put me through a VNG–a Videonystagmography, and yeah, I’m pretty sure it was as nasty as it sounds and nastier than its described by even the most reputable of Dr. Google-sites out there.

I left his office saying, “Sure, I’ll make an appointment for that, but I also want an MRI. Can you please give me a referral for a cranial MRI?”

He did.

At this point, I was pretty sure it was time to quit hoping for the best.

I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t insisted on the MRI. Sometimes you do have to be the one to begin preparing for the worst.

It was scheduled for Dec 6. Nikolaustag. Na denn, frohe Weihnachten. I had to cancel a lunch date that I’d been re-scheduling for weeks already. The harrowing part about your first MRI as a cancer survivor is the anticipation–the lead up, and waiting for results. The technicians behind the glass wall can see the results as they come in, but must maintain an air of absolute deadpan stoicism. Looking back, I remember coming off the table: the lab technician’s gentle hand on my shoulder, “We’ll take good care of you, not to worry.”

I imagine the two of them looking at each other after I’d left: “Holy fucking shit, dude, this woman has a 2 cm lesion on her cerebellum. And look at these stragglers over here. She’s walking around with a brain full of cancer and doesn’t even know it. I hope she doesn’t keel over before they can get her in.”

I envision them placing a call to the radiologist, or at the very least marking the images as URGENT. I don’t know what the procedure is for lab techs to alert the radiologist in cases like this, all I know is that around 9 PM that evening, as we were preparing for bed, “new normal” washed over our lives like a tidal wave. All our phones began ringing. The ENT left a message on my husband’s voicemail instructing us to report to the ER immediately. I remember calling him back, asking “Well, are they going to keep me there, or what is going on?” He said I should plan for hospitalization.

The team of oncologists came. Scoured my body searching for metastatic disease. The CT scan to confirm that it was not brain cancer, but rather lung cancer that had spread to my brain was a mere formality. I’d been a smoker since the sixth grade. My mother had died of lung cancer. It was in my genes, and I’d spent a lifetime battling nicotine addiction, in fear and anticipation of this day.

At around 3 AM, they wheeled me to the ICU on a hospital bed, with young nurse Megan holding the camera. Me still clutching the cup of cold hospital coffee. They’d sent my husband home.

The rest is history. For the first year or two–while I was going through chemo, radiation, immunotherapy; more chemo, more radiation, and ultimately more immunotherapy–which is what taught my immune system to fight the cancer that was trying to kill me–people were supportive: friends, strangers, associates–shit, even my sworn enemies stepped up to the plate. People are funny that way, when death comes calling.

In those first two years, it was touch and go. No one knew whether I would live or die. Before COVID came along and death itself became a shrug-worthy every day occurrence, as commonplace as school shootings and lynchings in the US, an internet buddy of mine set up a GoFundMe account to help with the costs of cancer care. Friends and strangers alike were generous and kind, and I felt embraced.

But now five years have passed, and I’m still alive. Still walking, breathing, birding, tending my garden. The cancer’s still there: lying in wait, I suppose. Every three months I get scanned, and–up until now–have been lucky to get a three-month hall pass every time. But that is what it is: a hall pass. I am not “cancer free”–the cancer is stable.

The costs haven’t diminished–if anything, they’ve increased, as the ravages of two years of poisoning have taken their toll–I’ve lost all my bottom teeth, for one thing. And even with insurance, unless you’ve got $20K sitting around collecting interest somewhere, you can forget about ever really eating again once you’ve lost your teeth–in this country: all hail the mush diet and protein shakes! But the cash contributions have stopped, and there’s little sympathy left. I’ve worn out my welcome with all but the closest of friends. And my husband. And my cats. Who need me to stay alive for a lot longer.

The most encouraging words I’ve gotten of late have come from Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian Nobel laureate whose work I have translated.

Du trägst ja mit deinem Erbe sozusagen die doppelte Vernichtung in
dir. Deswegen wirst du auch von der Krankheit verschont (nicht vor der
Krankheit, aber vor ihrem Ende) bleiben. Du bist schon zweimal
vernichtet in deinen Genen.

(It’s in your genetic legacy, as it were: there is genocide on both sides of your genealogy, and that’s why you are shielded from this illness [that is, not from the illness itself, but from its terminal consequence]: it’s not going to kill you because your ancestors, on both sides have already been annihilated.)

Elfriede Jelinek, email vom 21. Juli, 2021

She was referring my maternal lineage as Mackinac Ojibwe (Indian) and my paternal lineage as German Jew (-ish).

Yeah, so genocide and cancer: they’re kinda “in my blood.”

Oh snap.

While I’ve been erroneously credited with having translated several of Jelinek’s novels, aside from a few excerpts from plays that appear on the author’s website, the plays Bambiland and Sportchor are the two significant contributions I’ve made to introducing Jelinek to English-speaking readers.

I’ll be posting more about that soon.

For now. Hey, I’ve got a new “brief bio.” It’s a start.

Biography: Lillian Banks* (translator)

Lillian Banks holds a PhD in German from the University of Illinois. She is a writer, translator and scholar whose translations of Ingeborg Bachmann, Elfriede Jelinek, Boris Lurie, Henryk Broder and others have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Theater Magazine (Yale), Austrian Cultural Forum (New York), Words Without Borders, University of Illinois Press, University of California Press, Ariadne, Green Integer, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków (MOCAK) and elsewhere.

Banks is returning to the field after a hiatus brought on by stage IV lung cancer. She is an enrolled member of the Mackinac Bands of Ojibwe. Her original writing has appeared in America Indian Quarterly, AboutPlace, New German Critique, German Quarterly, Monatshefte and elsewhere.

*Publications prior to 2011 appeared under Banks’ maiden name Lilian M. Friedberg

Stay tuned, peeps. I’ll be bäck.

Irrepressibly yours.


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