“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.