A woman I didn’t know died the other day. I know that’s not exactly shocking news for most people, but she was well-known in various online brain cancer support groups. She had the same disease I did. And I guess it won, in the end.

Social support networks are getting completely made-over in the 21st century, mostly for the better. I’m frequently contacted by other brain cancer survivors asking me about what I did (or didn’t do) to survive. Most of them usually aren’t happy with, “Well, I cut back on added sugars, added way more fruits and vegetables, started going to the gym, and followed my physicians’ recommendations.” In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, written by colon cancer survivor Kate Bowler, she points out that successful people seem almost allergic to the concept of “luck,” because it implies there are large, unseen (although not necessarily supernatural) forces at work in our lives that we have no real control over (and if there’s one thing Americans can’t acknowledge, it’s situations beyond our control). In my case, my 19 month progression-free survival is largely a matter of random chance, I’ll readily admit. And the horrifying thing is, it could’ve just as easily swung the other way, as it did for April. Humans lead horrifically fragile, tenuous lives, especially those of us living with a chronic, lethal disease.

There are so few brain cancer patients — even before we start sub-dividing us into our individual diagnoses — we can’t possibly avoid each other, to paraphrase Star Trek. And the flip side of that coin is that there are so few of us that one person’s survival — or death — can dramatically sway the statistics. I was asked recently by a patient advocacy group to submit a quote as to why I’m staying alive.* In my usually flippant manner, I wrote, “It beats the alternatives.” Which is true, but, more truthfully, it’s because I’m painfully aware of the effect just one of us can have on the statistics, and how important it is for anyone in similar position to be able to say to themselves, “If that moron can do it, anyone can,” and go in for another infusion or radiation session. April was an early adopter of that idea that the Internet can be used to humanize and empower the least among us. And it’s saddening that she’s no longer among us.

When one of us “makes it,” it makes every member of the tribe a little stronger, more resolute, and capable. Conversely, when one of us dies, even if we didn’t know that individual, we’re all a little worse off. We live in an era of almost totally-binary thinking (appropriate, given the hyper-automation of the world) that doesn’t allow for more nuanced, necessary perspectives on disease, death, or dying. We no longer talk about the sort of Pyrrhic Victories that tend to define cancer survival; nor do we talk about the concept of death being a form of victory.

But if she can be mourned by people she never knew, or embolden others she will never meet, she probably accomplished her final, most-important goal. And she will be missed.

*Cue the BeeGees.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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