The Cancer Diaries: Prologue Prose

Danny West returns to writing after years away by opening up about the difficult life that awaits us after cancer. He’s doing it the only way he knows how: by telling the truth and talking about Commander decks with his friends.

Before we go any further, I should tell you that I’m sorry.

For doing what I’m doing, for doing this, I most sincerely apologize.

There’s a running joke I have with my friends that none of them ever finish
their shit. They’ll start something and it’ll be really exciting, but then
the luster wears off really fast. That’s when they stop and move onto the
next thing.

I call it being a “Prologue Pro,” an expert on the first half of

A long time ago, yesterday in a dream, we had this gorgeous trail that
started right behind our apartment and laid itself under dense suburban
forest canopy. Happy houses and children. Baby babbling brooks bubbling
beneath bridges.

I’d stretch and pull and shoestrings up. I’d bend my knees and count the

A running joke.

Have you ever started watching a TV show, then just stopped? Have you ever
cleaned half your plate and thrown the rest away?

“Prologue Pro.”

Earth’s air is built on breaths built for lives with half their potential,
ships sailing at half-speed with masts half high.

“You know, I should really finish that project.”

Just look at all those divorces.

“That book? I need to pick it back up again.”

See, the joke is that attention spans suck. Start something, then meander.
Before you know it, it’s gone before it had any chance to get done
properly. Blame faster media or technology or phones or whatever, but
that’s the case. That’s the gag.

That’s the reality.

“You know? I started that game and never finished it.”

“Prologue Pro.”

At the end of The Graduate, there’s an awkward lull where the kid
and the older woman that seduced him are on the back of the public bus
feeling all weird. He just yanked her out of her wedding ceremony. They’re
on the lam on a whim.

Not that you ever finished the movie or anything.

“You’re such a Prologue Pro.”

The notion there is that romantic endings always end a scene too soon; the
boy and the woman, their lives are going to be all kinds of problematic now
that we, the audience, have left the theater. It’s like this with every
movie, every character’s life. We just don’t see it. After the action hero
carries the chick out of the building and the foreign guy gets captured and
the building or warehouse explodes the camera shuts off so you never get to
see them sitting in silence at a restaurant or yelling at one another on
opposite sides of their bedroom.

Anyway, that “now what?” feeling of nothing is how you feel after the
doctor says you’re still fine and you’re not dying anymore. At least not
for another year or so. At least not from neck and face cancer. Car
crashes. Building collapses. For God’s sake, bears? Those things are always
on the table, but this cancer stuff, it’s on hiatus for the time being.

The doctor is looking at his clipboard.

“Do you have any questions?”

So, so many.


A few years ago, they told me there was a real chance I would die. Actual,
physical, gray-in-the-grave dirt dead. Without knowing it, I’d been
followed around. Red, beady eyes. Twig fingers. It stalked me. On that
wilderness trail behind our place. In malls and in the shower. In my bed at
night with my wife, it watched me soundly sleep.

Who knows how long it’d been there? Reading my mail. Backseat driving.
Studying my every smile so that it could pick the perfect one to smash
bloody right down my throat.

A running joke. The running joke.

I was sitting on the curb outside our apartment. It was a little after nine
in the morning.

I went for a walk that morning, but I didn’t get far because the doctor called. My brain got noisy like the static on an old television when the signal goes out.

Does not compute.

The walk I was going to take didn’t get properly finished.

“Prologue Pro.”

The five stages of coping with death end on “Acceptance.”
So in order to die properly, like a responsible human being, you have to Accept it first. If you don’t, it probably causes all
kinds of administrative problems in heaven and hell or in funeral parlors
and med school morgues.

“Why doesn’t this one have a tag on the toe?”

“Selfish idiot didn’t Accept. Now I have to stay late

The doctor tells me: “I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. Honestly, I really am

Through all that brain noise, all that gets through to me is that lonesome,
cold reality: “I’m going to be 30 years old when I die.”

All the fears you have about other people, all those tragedies that are so
captivating because they feel so distant from you, they’re here. They’re on
top of me. They’re dying in my lap and there’s nothing I can do.

My half-lived life is over.

“Prologue Pro.”

Back here in the present, the doctor smiles caramel-color coffee stains and
looks at me down his nose through mother goose glasses.

“We’ll see you in six months then!” He slaps both his thighs when he stands
up off that little black stool they sit on, the one that makes that thick
squeak when it rolls around. All doctors have the same one.

Six months. That’s when they’re going to check again. A couple times a year
my wife and I go in and hang our heads past old people confused as to why
we’re there. As if nobody under 40 ever dies for any reason.

That’s some ways a way from today, though. As of today, evidently, I’m
still not dying. I won my coin flip like the lucky, undeserving child I am.
I was probably scheduled to die, but destiny was so tired of me crying
about it that it just let this one go.

I’m out of the woods for now.

But yeah, for a long time I didn’t know that I wasn’t dying. No one really
did. And the thing is, I still don’t know. Even after the tests are clear
and oncologists are telling me point blank, “Hey. You’re not dying for a
while,” I still don’t know. I can’t make myself know. Because I
already had to Accept it. And man, everything is about
these scans… but they’re getting more predictable. They’re getting less
important to the doctor because I’m a nothing case now, and as soon as he
leaves the room he has to tell someone their face is going to rot off
before the holidays this year. He has to tell them to adjust accordingly.

I’m not dying right now. But if I see a number on my phone calling me? One
that I don’t recognize? It’s that first call every time; he’s going to tell
me what he’s going to tell me all over again. He’s going to tell me that I
have an even chance of spending my wood anniversary in wood and that
there’s nothing I can do about it.

He’ll say, “I’m sorry, but this is the truth.”

This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t
happening.This isn’t happening.This isn’t happening.

“I want to finish this before I die. I should finish it.”

“Prologue Pro.”

I am The Graduate; I am the dying boy that kidnapped his own life
away from its wedding and now I’m sitting with it on the back of a bus
without the faintest clue what I’ll do with it when I get it home.

Speaking of which, here we are exiting the revolving doors to the hospital.
Patients are coming in and out. Oxygen masks, blue bruised shin bones of
the pale, clear fluid, clear fluid, piss fluid, moan.

My wife is here, but I’m somewhere else. This happens a lot.

Before I could not die…

“What should we do today?”

…I had to Accept dying.

Her face is all lit up and hopeful like a Christmas tree puppy, a wee baby
bitch with a big, bright-colored ball. It’s her: endearing, tiny-faced
her, asking me if I’m hungry.

“We can eat wherever you’d like,” I say. “I don’t care.”

“It’s your day,” she says. “You should pick.”

I don’t want to pick. Like, really, I can’t.

And I’m a little mad, just a little like I always am, because it’s
another day where I can’t communicate what it’s like to feel this way, that
cancer isn’t a race that you finish or a math problem you solve. It keeps
going. It’s a loaded gun to your head all the years of your life and the
first day you’re free from it is the day the trigger fires. It’s an endless
tension, and you’re its hostage. There’s no negotiating, there’s no right
answer. And she’ll rearrange furniture. And she’ll wear dresses. And she’ll
try, how she’ll try, but she’ll come up short until she’s in her seventies
and it’s her turn to die. And she’ll be mad, so mad, because by
the time she understands it I’ll be gone.

I try to act normal so that she feels like these things are over and
they’re better, that there’s a finish line or a solution to all this. No
more watching me wince when the needle misses the vein. No more finding me
at home staring at our wedding photos in the dark. The scan was clean and
everything’s wonderful. For real this time.

I’m really, really sorry. Truly I am.

The difference is actually pretty simple: Everyone knows they’re
going to die, but virtually nobody understands it.

And I feel so, so unremarkable, because I’m positive we all printed some
sort of collective death certificate the second we taught a computer how to
play chess anyway. Carriages to cars, fireworks to bombs. Maybe it’ll be
next year or maybe it won’t be for a thousand years, but all the time we
hold is borrowed. You can take that to the bank.

Look, it’s not that I’m ungrateful. Hugs are what wives are for. She’s done everything right.

We’re still debating where we’re going for brunch. I don’t care where we
eat, I’m just tired of standing outside the hospital. She hears me
passively aggressively breathe.

“What’s your hurry? We have all the time in the world.”

Sure we do.

I grab her wrist and tug it down at an angle so that I can see her phone
screen. I speak before I even see anything:

“Let’s eat there.”

I point at the last picture that spun up into sight. Yelp. Pictures of
tables and chairs and scrambled eggs. Chalkboard menu on the wall. Young

She cheerfully says, “If that’s what you want.” She kisses me on the cheek,
on the sunny sidewalk street. She landed her lips on the deadened up right
side of my face. I didn’t feel a thing.

Lasers did all the radiation work on my neck, face, back, and shoulders,
you know. Real flesh hands did the surgery cutting stuff, the part where a
team of masked experts pull apart the muscle strings and sinew from bone.
Shiny wet blood surgery, real stuff. But after that? They put math into a
machine and it zapped me up nice. The flesh doctors are basically just
there to answer questions once they’ve pulled the evil junk out of your
face. And on that radiation bed? That machine you’re staring up at? That
buzzing brilliant robot? Imagine what it’s like to be saved by drowning,
right. Imagine opening your bleary wet eyes, feeling your back pushed into
sticky, grainy beach sand, the whole world smelling of coconut, and you
cough up a throatful of sea salt and see nothing saving you but an ATM
machine. Imagine a copier or a turnstile giving you CPR. Imagine a
refrigerator wearing a bikini.

This is what passes for a near-death experience now. It’s humane, but it’s really, really inhuman.

The Uber rolls up and we get in. The driver stranger says hello and we
start rolling toward brunch. My wife says hi, and I say nothing.

I look at wheelchairs out the backseat window. Dying parents and
grandparents holding hands together. Valets taking tips and car keys.
Patients, patience, patience. This one needs an MRI to see if they need a
CT scan to see if they need their blood spun in the centerfuge one more
time today. All that’s keeping them alive is a service army of
one-track-mind machines.

I feel bad for treating my TI-83 like crap when I was in high school.
Brilliant little son of a bitch.

The car stops and we wiggle out onto the pavement in front of the diner.
I’m nauseous, but I don’t say anything. I’m not hungry, but I’ll eat.

The door jingles its bell when she pushes it open. It’s noisy inside and
the waitresses have tattoos with roses and sparrows and stern-faced poets.
The display case at the counter has stale cookies, stale brownies, humble
crumbling scones.

At our quaint table for two, we’re approached by a big smile and a small
skirt. She’s talking about the specials. I’m not interested, but I pretend
to listen. Her tattoos, black and pink ink, shine off the window sun: Flower.
Dead friend’s initials. Flower, flower.

I don’t like phones or Yelp or young, healthy waitresses.

I’m lying, of course. Truth be told, I get off on pretending to be old.
Because I probably never will be.

Magic Card Back

After a few bites of her sample bacon, my wife gleefully asks if I want to
try anything. She asks if I’m alright.

And clouds pass over the windows and paint the world quiet, and she sinks
herself into a deep breath, knowing we both know the answer. Joy of my
joys, the wet in my blood, her eyes are sinking, slinking, shrinking down
in the dark below flood.


It’s not over.

It’s never going to be over. That’s not how this works.

The waitress appears again and asks:

“Is everything good?”

The truth is…

“I’m not okay.”

The hardest part of any of this is the newfound addiction for the
truth. Once everything returns to normal for everyone else-your parents,
your friends, your loves–they chat about the weather again, about school
or work. But God, you still really want to keep hearing about
honest things, visceral things, naughty, bawdy, awful things; you want to
hear what else humanity has been hiding in the basement. You want to go
down the stairs with a flashlight and shake it toward the blackest corners.
Because you know, you just know, that you yourself are down there

I can’t avoid the dark at this point. I can’t let lessons this big be so

“I need to finish that…”

I am here to tell you the truth.


I died, but I’m alive. So what should I do?

“I need to finish that life.”