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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2018 - Vol. 15, Issue 4

"Bartering for Health"

written by

Wendy Kennar

"Bartering for Health"

Written By

Wendy Kennar

In the course of one year, we had three cancer scares in my family. My mom (breast), my dad (colon), and me (skin). And three times, we got lucky.


Cancer diagnoses can go either way -- potentially life-threatening and life as you know it will never be the same again or completely treatable and you move on with your life.


Either way, no one wants to hear the “c” word.


With each of these scares, I made a “deal” with whichever Higher Power might have been listening and would handle such a request. I’d take my every day pain, I’d even take a stronger dose of my every day pain, to keep that “c” word from transforming from a vague scare to a harsh reality.


It’s a crazy kind of deal that implies I’ve got some sort of power and control, and that this higher power is just waiting, listening, and receptive to requests for such health-related barters.


In my mind, I knew what I was asking for. Daily pain doesn’t go away. Cancer eventually does -- in one way or another. Daily pain isn’t easily understood. Cancer is widely recognized. Daily pain brings you little, if any, sympathy. Tell someone your legs hurt; they’ll tell you about an ache or pain they have. Tell them you have an autoimmune disease, and most have no idea what that means. But mention the “c” word, and it’s an entirely different situation.


Cancer is ... cancer, after all. The dreaded. The feared. The avoid-at-all-costs. But, pain is just pain. You can live with pain. Walking with pain is still walking.


I don’t let my pain stop me from parenting my ten-year-old son, Ryan, the way I want to. I go outside and play handball because he asks me to. I navigate the obstacle courses Ryan sets up in the living room.


I take him on “dates” to museums, spending hours observing and exploring. Even though these activities cause me additional pain, I do them because I want to share these experiences with my son. I don’t let the pain stop me.


A friend of mine, a woman living with fibromyalgia, once told me that she didn’t know which she would have preferred -- a cancer diagnosis or a fibro diagnosis. She wasn’t trying to discredit cancer in any way; she was merely being honest that one disease isn’t automatically, necessarily, undoubtedly easier, better, or more desirable than another. Cancer, she said, is often much more quickly diagnosed than her fibro or my autoimmune disease, Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. “With cancer,” she said, “there are things you can do. There are courses of action. And sometimes, many times, there are cures.”


There’s no cure for her fibro, and no cure for my autoimmune disorder.


My parents and I lived in a state of fear until we received the “all-clear.” I felt a superstitious need to hold my tongue, to stop myself from mentioning any pain or discomfort I experienced. I didn’t want my higher power hearing me whine or complain and then drop the boom. “If you think that’s bad, check this out,” I imagined him or her saying.


So I kept quiet, very aware that my situation could always be worse. And that my situation was on the verge of possibly getting much worse.


Some times I feel gratitude for my autoimmune disease. It could be much more debilitating. I could be confined to a wheelchair. I could be unable to drive myself. I could be dying.


Instead, I’m functioning. Ryan may find me crying on the stairs as I struggle to reach his second-floor bedroom. My son may see me icing my knees after we’ve ridden our bikes. But the most important thing is that my son is seeing me every day. I’m actively engaged with him each day. I’m taking him and picking him up from school. Helping with homework. Preparing dinner.


I’m healthy-enough.


And yet there are times when I think my life might be easier if my medical situation was worse. If I looked disabled, if I used a cane or a walker, then there would be an understanding for my slowness, a bit of space left around me as I stood in line at the post office or waited on the playground for my son to be dismissed from class.


After our cancer-scare finally ended, it brought with it a series of unanswered questions. How did we get lucky when others don’t? Did my higher power grant me a reprieve of sorts, figuring I already had enough to deal with without throwing a positive cancer diagnosis into the mix?


I don’t know the answers to those questions. All I know is that the three of us were declared cancer-free. But the fear is still there. Every time I lie down for an MRI of my legs, every time my breasts are flattened like a pancake, every time my moles are measured.


I’ve always feared cancer. My maternal grandmother lost her breasts to cancer, so I know the scales of justice are already tipped. But my fear always seemed like a distant possibility, like the way I think about a freeway accident before beginning our family drive up to the Central Coast, or check the news when a close friend is flying to London to visit her family.


But since my autoimmune disease diagnosis, all these fears are much more real.


It’s not that bad things could happen. Bad things do happen.


I know that no amount of bargaining, pleading, or bartering can change the final result.


But it doesn’t stop me from trying.

Wendy Kennar is a writer who finds inspiration in her son and from the memories and experiences of her twelve-year teaching career. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications and anthologies, both in print and online. You can read more from Wendy at

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