Chronic Failure


“On her medical record, she officially became a treatment failure—not someone whom the treatment failed, but someone who had failed the treatment.” So writes Alan Shapiro in Vigil, his memoir of his sister’s death from cancer. A treatment failure. A failure.

Terminal illnesses do that to us, make us feel like failures. So do chronic conditions. We fail the doctors who work so hard to cure us. We come back with symptoms they didn’t expect us to have. Our bodies defy their logic. “This pill works for everyone,” a doctor said to me when I returned to her office telling her it didn’t work for me. “You shouldn’t be losing your hair,” another doctor said when I arrived in his office with a bag full of my hair.

In my teens, I had ovarian cysts. By age 20, I had already had three mammograms. At 30, I was told I was entering perimenopause. These facts don’t make sense. Not to me. Not to my doctors. I have failed treatment after treatment. I continue to fail. And I think of Steve Jobs, who lived with cancer seven years longer than initially expected. But who, in the end, still became “someone who failed the treatment.”

Of course, it’s really the case that medicine is failing us, not the other way around. The entire structure of our medical system is failing us. The entire structure of our society that pretends we’re not all temporarily able-bodied, that pretends we won’t all, at some point or another, experience disability, temporary or otherwise. I know that.

But still, today, I feel failure. My body hurts. I lay awake last night in bed and felt pain. My feet are bloated, my hands. My hormonal system is failing me—situation hormone-all-fucked-up. I know this isn’t my fault. I want to be free from pain—that doesn’t seem like too much to ask—and in the absence of relief from medicine, what am I to make of things? 



Andrea Scarpino  is a poet and essayist and a frequent contributor to POTB.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

0 thoughts on “Chronic Failure”

  1. Ah, here’s a relevant quote from Jobs in Thursday’s L.A. Times from a Stanford commencement speech in 2005. “Death is very likely the best invention of life. All pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” Born in S.F. to two unmarried University of Wisconsin graduate students Joanne Carole Schieble and Syrian immigrant Abdulfattah Jandali who put him up for adoption. He was adopted by Paul Jobs, a high school dropout who sold used cars and worked as a machinist and his wife Clara. He was a Buddhist and a vegetarian.


  2. Andrea, you write, “I think of Steve Jobs, who lived with cancer seven years longer than initially expected. But who, in the end, still became ‘someone who failed the treatment.’ Of course, it’s really the case that medicine is failing us, not the other way around.” This seems like a matter of personal perspective, and do we really know what Steve Jobs personal perspective was on his earlier-than-average death? It seems to me that your body is what it is. I suspect both you and your doctors are doing what you all can to lessen your pain — it doesn’t seem as if either should be considered “failures” if you don’t achieve your goals.
    On Steve Jobs early demise, I really gotta wonder if he had his life to live over, if he’d do anything differently — maybe, but maybe not — if anything he was driven to succeed, and that can come with a price. People measure success and failure by a lot more than how we die or even if we’re “happy” or pain-free. I’ll bet these sorts of qualities were less important to Jobs than the average person. When I was reading today about how Apple University was teaching people how to be more like Steve Jobs, I was thinking, “Wonderful, now maybe more of us will have the opportunity to flame out from cancer at 56 years old.” I know, maybe it’s kind of a warped perspective, but that’s where I am at this point in the journey.


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