In the fall of 2005, weeks after selling a pitch to turn the Terminator movie franchise into a scary robot television show, I ate a bad farmers market burrito and ended up with kidney cancer. It’s not an uncommon diagnostic journey for the disease: You set out expecting something familiar — for me, food poisoning — but quickly find yourself at a partial lower left nephrectomy.
You can pretend you know what it feels like to have cancer, or how you’d respond to the news. But you’re lying to yourself. That’s okay. Lying to ourselves about mortality is what separates us from cats.
I spent most of my time crying. Well, crying, pulling myself together, rocking my son to sleep, crying more and then taking Ativan so my wife could rock me to sleep.
A month after my diagnosis I fell asleep staring at the surgical theater lights and listening to the opening verses of Born to Run thanks to a sympathetic anesthesiologist.
When I woke up, the tumor was gone. But the feeling of cancer was still inside me. My body was now a sinister stranger. It had betrayed me; it had snuck up and tried to kill me. I would never trust it again. But it didn’t matter. We both knew I couldn’t escape.
On the day after surgery I lost a footrace to the far cancer ward wall to a guy who’d just had his colon removed, a distant cry from my days as a teen sprinter anchoring the 400-meter relay. I knew then it’d be a long and painful recovery.
I banned my friends from visiting and spent my recovery staring out a hospital window listening to music on my headphones and wondering if I’d see my boy grow up. In my more optimistic moments, I decided I should quit writing the scary robot show before I’d actually started. It all seemed ridiculous and disconnected from my life. And for once my performance anxiety and my existential anxiety were working together — no one would be mad at me if I just stopped.
Not exactly a profile in courage. Not even in the most favorable lighting.
Screenwriters are the worst kind of cocktail party a—holes: we know just enough information to get us through the exposition scene in the first act, but not enough to be useful to anyone about anything after that.
One of the things I know nothing about is cancer, especially my own. I never researched it, never went online to read up on it, never “stared it down” and never really asked my doctor much of anything. I didn’t even know he was cutting out my rib until I was lying in my recovery bed and it was gone. My spirit animal is whatever happens when you get a chicken and an ostrich drunk and give them a room.
But I do know this: Cancer doesn’t give a damn how tough you are. Cancer doesn’t care if you stared down the North Koreans, or won the Tour De France, or wrote two seasons of a scary robot show.
Since the Senator from Arizona’s diagnosis became public, I’ve watched well-meaning people tell a brave man to be brave. “Give it hell, John.” “Fight.” They’re worthy words and always spoken from the best place. But they’re not the words I’ve heard from other cancer survivors in the last few days. We know the dirty secret.
You don’t battle cancer. You don’t fight it. If cancer wants you it sneaks into your room at night and just takes you. It doesn’t care if you’re John Wayne or John McCain.
The “tough guy” narrative is seductive. It suggests we have control over our fate, that we can will cancer away. These are lies we tell ourselves. And for some patients that’s helpful. It gets them through the day. For them, it’s a useful tool. But courageousness is a standard that no sick person should feel like they have to meet.
As a storyteller I think hard about the tales we tell. Toughness and courage are staples of our cultural business. But these are not how we survive cancer. We survive cancer through luck, science, early detection and real health insurance. If we survived through courage, I probably wouldn’t have.
When I did end up writing the scary robot show, I found myself clashing with executives over how I depicted the heroes; I argued that bravery in the face of death shouldn’t be the default setting for a protagonist. It was okay to see people fail, and be afraid, and let themselves and others down.
Because that’s mostly what we do.
But pop culture glorifies courage and lacks empathy for weakness. And when we glorify strength without understanding weakness, we end up with a toxic version of heroism that suggests there’s a morality associated with survival, that bravery and goodness are linked and that the fearful and the cowardly are somehow lesser and get what they deserve.
And when we do that, we can no longer tell stories of grace, or forgiveness, or connectedness. We can no longer tell stories about real people. These are the stories we need more than ever, especially those of us walking on life’s edge.
If you believe stories are lies we tell so we can learn the truth, we best be careful what lies we tell ourselves. Because the truth is, there’s a Terminator out there for each one of us. But when it finally finds you has nothing to do with how fast you run, or how tough you are, or how good a person you’ve been.
Here are the first words I wrote when I’d recovered from my surgery. The words that came to me and made me realize I could write the scary robot show. It’s the opening narration, played over a dark onrushing road:
“I will die. I will die, and so will you. Death gives no man a pass.”
You won’t find those words in the show, though. The network made me take them out.
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