We were hurtling down the 405 in the dark, in that section between Mulholland and Sunset where the canyon walls close in on both sides and the only illumination comes from the lights of the cars, when I turned to Jennifer and said: “I’ve been thinking about tweeting my cancer.”
There was a fractional pause. “Really,” she said — the kind of “Really” that implies Holy Mackerel. You have absolutely brought me up short here. Then: “What do you mean, exactly?”
“I’ve been wondering if I want to write about my cancer,” I said. “On Twitter.”
She knew that much. What she was asking was: Why? For who? To what end? This was Sunday night. Three days before, on Thursday afternoon, I’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The pathology report indicated a focus of cells that was very small and highly treatable. The fact that it was probably the best kind of cancer to be told you have didn’t feel much like good news. It didn’t make me feel like I’d won an eBay auction or dodged a bullet. It made me feel like the bullet had sunk itself softly into my skin while I wasn’t paying attention and now I was standing there watching it protrude from my body, thinking What the hell is this thing? Where did this come from? “I have cancer,” I’d been telling myself for three days, walking around the idea, poking it with a stick. “I have cancer.” It was still absurdly soon. It had just happened. It was real. It wasn’t real yet.
“Wow,” Jennifer said. “I’m surprised.”
“I am too,” I said.
“Why would you do that?” she said.
I’d been wondering that myself, because I’ve never been the sort of person to air much of my personal life in public. It was a week for all sorts of new things. And so I started to talk, thinking out loud — about the world of social media I’ve been spending so much time in lately, for both personal and professional reasons. About whether the notion of social media as “community” is a dream, or a lie. About what community is for, or ought to be for. About people with whom I’d developed a weird, online-only relationship, and how I’d wondered what the limits of that sort of relationship were. I talked about Merlin Mann’s essay on “making the clackity noise,” and the notion that the quick gag might be easy but what people really respond to in social media is what’s real and true. I talked about writing as a way of making sense of the world, and what it would feel like to leave such rich, authentic material on the table and walk away. “Fraudulent,” I said. “It would feel fraudulent.”
“Okay,” Jennifer said. “But why Twitter? Why not blog about it?”
This was tougher to answer, although I was already sure I didn’t want to do something like a single-purpose blog about my cancer. I like Twitter, and it felt like the right venue. It felt appropriate to fold posts about my illness into a stream of material, all kinds of material, of which some was trivial and some was smart-alecky and some was serious. That seemed like the sort of approach that most mirrored what I was already groping toward — a life that would include, but not be defined by, my cancer. It didn’t only have to do with balance, though. It had to do with authenticity. There was a sense in which some part of the information I was already putting on Twitter was fake; it was heightened for comic effect, or truncated to meet the demands of the medium. But to omit this new fact in my life felt different than that passing kind of fakery, and worse.
Still, things troubled me about the idea. I worried about being seen as a sort of cancer tourist — a guy with a diagnosis that was highly hopeful, as these things go, slumming in a world of people who were really sick. (I managed to dismiss that idea pretty quickly via a simple mental trick: I pictured a roomful of healthy middle-aged guys, asked how many of them wanted to trade places with me, and counted the number who raised their hands.) I worried about people finding it inappropriate, in poor taste, showy. I could respect any of those positions. For some people, I supposed, it might simply be outside their comfort zones. I could appreciate that position too, because it was outside mine, as Jennifer pointed out now.
“It is, isn’t it,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “In a good way. That’s an argument to do it.” There were arguments for everything now, and against everything — writing about it, not writing about it, one treatment, another treatment. I was living in a world of arguments. They were individually compelling, and when you added them up they formed an exquisitely balanced universe of contradictions.
There was even an argument to be made that I was lucky. It went something like this: I had an early diagnosis, a good prognosis, excellent health care and a supportive spouse. All true, every word. But I didn’t believe, as a friend had already suggested, that my cancer was somehow a good thing wrapped in a bad thing. It wasn’t. It would involve, at a minimum, a good deal of fear and worry for me and my family. Whatever intervention I chose would be unpleasant. But at the end of it I’d be somewhere unexpected, my path altered by circumstances I’d never foreseen or chosen. And if that wasn’t worth writing about, what was? Watching the lights streak by us on the pitch-black freeway, red in front of us, bright white to our left, I thought about a scene from William Broyles’ screenplay for “Apollo 13.” Mission commander Jim Lovell, interviewed on TV, recalls piloting a Banshee toward a carrier in the Sea of Japan during the Korean War. His radar jams and there’s a short in the cockpit. He’s flying blind. All my instruments are gone, my lights are gone, I can’t even tell now what my altitude is, Lovell says. I know I’m running out of fuel, so I’m thinking about ditching in the ocean. And I look down there and then, in the darkness there’s this… there’s this green trail, it’s like a long carpet that’s just laid out right beneath me. And it was the algae, right? It was that phosphorescent stuff that gets churned up in the wake of a big ship and it was… it was just leading me home. And if my cockpit lights hadn’t shorted out, there’s no way I would have ever been able to see that. So you… you never know what events are going to transpire to get you home.