There is something about the universal reach of art that makes it art. Whether it is a Shakespeare sonnet or a Vermeer portrait or a Jane Austen novel. The ability to distill an emotion and share it in a way that is still relevant 10, or 100, or even hundreds of years later. And when you go to a museum or a play, or read a classic, you sort of anticipate that experience. It may touch you in unexpected ways, but you go in the hopes that somehow it does. And when art fails to reach you, you can’t help but shake your head and ask, but is it really art?
I never expect pop music to deliver on the level of “art” so was a little surprised when listening to some old Billy Joel (and by old, I mean, only 25 years old) to be touched by the lyrics to All About Soul.
“The power of love, the power of healing
This life isn't fair
It's gonna get dark, it's gonna get cold
You've got to be tough, but that ain't enough
It's all about soul."
He was writing about the strength of a woman he was building a relationship with, not about getting through cancer, but the emotions rang true. It gets so dark, so cold. And being tough is just not enough.
Diamonds and Steel
I see patients laugh over the absurdity of what they are going through, and cry over all that they have given up. They know life isn’t fair. But what strikes me most often is the resilience of those that manage to do both. It’s like the difference between a diamond and stainless steel — both are tough, but one shatters and the other gives, only to spring back.
Drina* keeps her sense of humor even when she can barely get herself to work after yet another round of treatment for a cancer that just won’t go away. She’s happy that it is “stable” and saves her strength for the inevitable next round of treatment.
Henry* sassed the doctors when they told him treatment had failed, making him ineligible for the clinical trial he hoped would bring a cure. Cancer subsumed him within days. But he never stopped smiling at his wife.
As she shuffled out of the hospital to home hospice, Susan* took my face between her hands and kissed me on the forehead and said, “Thank you kiddo.” She knew she was going home to die but was determined to do it with the same dignity and equanimity that she brought to every day that she lived.
Maureen* laughs and says, “Well, I’m still here!” fifteen years after her stage 4 diagnosis. Multiple surgeries and persistent fatigue haven’t kept her from enjoying her grandchildren and getting on with life.
These patients have all gone to the dark side, shed tears, raged at the unfairness of life, doubted their abilities to go on another day, and felt the cold realities of cancer. Yet they have know something about life, too. They know that life ebbs and flows, and that cancer rides the waves. I remember struggling in the early days of my diagnosis, trying to take control of my cancer and my life, and countering cancer’s attack with a determination of my own. I was firm, and yet so fragile in my resolve.
Often after some type of life-threatening experience, people talk about how much wiser they are, how they look at life differently, how much they appreciate every day. I can’t claim that cancer made me any smarter. But living in the world of cancer, seeing cancer patients every day, watching those who smile as they make it through another round of treatment, talking to the many patients who have shared with me how they have coped with the unthinkable certainly has taught me a very important lesson: it’s all about soul.
* Names changed to protect patient identities.