3 min

Death of Cancer Man

Getting beyond being a victim

Credit: Xtra West files

My first job after university was as a door-to-door canvasser for a certain infamous environmental group. The place was run like some Klingon warship. All of the people who hired and trained me eventually burned out, said something like, “I’ve been telling these people that the world is screwed for three years and they still don’t get it,” and quit. (A fate I avoided because I apparently never tire of the sound of my own voice.) At that point I was handed the keys to the place, given a $100 a week raise and placed in charge.

When I “went gay” I spent months beginning every sentence with, “As a gay man …” I wore a “closets are for a clothes” T-shirt under my rainbow-flag jacket long before I was prepared to do anything dirty with another man.

Years later, diagnosed with AIDS-related cancer, I was told to quit my job and make the most of my precious remaining time in this world. All there was left to define me was my chemically-induced baldness and the fact that only one in four cancer patients could expect to be alive five years after their initial diagnosis.

Because I didn’t know how else to cope I fell into that persona and Cancer Man was born.

Like a 22-year-old who’s just given his first blowjob, I found ways of working all things cancerous and death into every conversation. I salivated with anticipation whenever I sensed that some unsuspecting stranger was about to ask, “What do you do for a living?” I said things like “I’m living with AIDS and cancer,” and thrust my hand at people, daring them not to shake it.

If there was a way to be self-righteous, indignant or get sympathy directed my way, I found it.

Earlier this year, my oncologist got pregnant. My quarterly check-up happened to be scheduled on the day before she started her maternity leave. She felt all of my bits. We laughed and joked like old friends.

When she was convinced that everything was fine, she told me that she had a surprise. She took my little cancer-patient booking card and ripped it up.

“But it hasn’t been five years yet.”

“Don’t worry about that. You’re free. Go and live your life. And if you get a book published, I want to buy a copy.”

The two of us left the exam room and started our new lives.

After that, whenever I met a new person and we got to the stage of the conversation where we exchanged life histories, I started off like I might have years ago-by making fun of my hometown. I told them how I met Bryan at a bar in Montreal the same day I fired his cousin for giving a man a blowjob while driving a company vehicle. But as I got closer to the sickness portion of the tale, sensing that Cancer Man’s powers had faded a little, I’d stumble.

In this new post-cancer world it seemed showy (almost a lie really) to go on about cancer this and dying that, when more and more it seemed like I should have been listening to all of those people who said things like, “You never know, miracles do happen.”

A few weeks ago I met with one of my professors. Before she tore apart the kid’s book I’ve been writing for years, she decided she should get to know me a little. “What got you interested in writing?”

“Well, I…”

Before Cancer Man could dawn his cap he was attacked from behind by a new character that had shown up in my head.

“Oh, no you don’t,” the mysterious stranger said, as he smashed Cancer Man’s face against the hard marble floor of my sub-conscious. “You’ve gotten away with that AIDS-related cancer story for the last time.”

When the battle was over, Cancer Man had been torn limb from limb. His lifeless corpse was scattered everywhere.

“Now to the task at hand,” said the mysterious stranger, as he took control of the little mechanical levers inside my head that manage all of my interactions with the world. When my lips began flapping I did something I never do. I just answered her question. Not as an angry enviro money-whore, as a gay man or a PWA. I didn’t even make a joke.

It was strange.

Since then I’ve had other conversations and I haven’t barked at anyone for saying something, that if I were still crazy, I could construe as offensive. I haven’t jumped on my little pillbox podium and spoken as anything-except little old me.

All in all, it’s been more than a bit relaxing to be back in control of the levers in my head and I wonder why I didn’t kill Cancer Man years ago.