Monday, April 12, 2010

A Cancer Survivor Considers Identity and the 2010 Census

With the American Cancer Society's More Birthdays campaign in mind, I decided to post a story that should motivate and give courage to both those who are fighting this disease and those who are cancer free. CNN's posted an essay by Anne Feeley, a glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer survivor who founded Brains on Bikes. Her essay is part of CNN's series about identity and the 2010 Census.

She begins the piece by telling a little bit about herself, noting that all the census will tell people is her age, 55; gender, female; and race, white. It will not tell the story of her journey in life or her battle with cancer. It's a moving piece. She recounts how she was told to prepare to die, but did otherwise.
The week I got out of the hospital, I began exercising. While the staples were still in my head, through the radiation and chemotherapy, I exercised. I was so lucky that I was able to. Very slowly, I got stronger. That first year, I did a half-marathon. Not fast, but I did it.

After the surgery and the radiation and the 2½ years of chemo, I was pronounced "in remission." During this time, as I split my time between homes in London, England, and New York City, I did several 10K races, indoor rowing competitions, and the UK Three Peaks Challenge. These events transformed my life physically, emotionally and spiritually. Brain cancer was a wake-up call for our whole family. The shock wasn't that I was going to die, but that I had forgotten that I was going to die. We all are. Life isn't a dress rehearsal. (Read full post)
Today Feeley is cycling across the country to "put brain cancer on the map." She hopes to raise money that will help find a cure.

Her essay caught my eye because it deals with cancer. My mother battled stomach cancer in her later years. When she died when she was in remission.

However, as I read Feeley's piece, I focused less on cancer and more on what she says about the census and how it tells so little, how much of the story the counted person's life remains only guesswork with little information.

I've been reading lots of old census records lately as I research my family's genealogy. From those records I can see where my ancestors lived, who was in whose household at the time the census was taken; whether an ancestor was listed as black, mulatto or white; who owned land; who could read and write; and sometimes in Louisiana, whether my ancestors were French speakers or English speakers. But I guess at the rest of the story.

When researching your roots, sometimes you can only learn what you need to know by hitting the road and talking to older relatives. For instance, I already knew that diabetes ran on my father's side of the family, but doing research on a recent trip to Alabama, I spoke to two cousins, sisters. One was 89 and the other 90. Through them I learned that diabetes also runs on my mother's side through her maternal grandmother's family.

On one hand, that's scary news. On the other, it motivates me to stick to changes I've made in my diet.

So far I haven't heard of anyone dying from cancer or living with it in my bloodline other than my mother, but I listen for this information nonetheless. When I notice someone's missing from the record, I wonder what happened. Did she leave? Did he run away? Did she die of illness, which one?

Moved away is the best news. Twice I've learned through additional research that someone was murdered.

Most of all I'm listening for stories of perseverance and how individuals transformed their lives because that's the kind of story I need to hear. Anne Feeley is not related to me by blood, but she's telling the kind of story I need at CNN. So, while not blood kin, she is a kindred spirit, I hope.

We all need that kind of strength, to cling to hope, to change what we can change for the better, and to work through challenges when life doesn't go according to plan.

1 comment:

Can-Can said...

Amen sister. The census and other records are mere outlines. In many families the stories told are outlines. The teller has as much influence on the story as what is told. Some secrets, be they scandalrs or tales of triumph, remain secret forever. Talking to our elders and coaxing their stories and memories is truly important, actually critical.
Thanks for this post.