Alice and Calvin Trillin's Reflections on Life with Cancer

Beth Brophy Health Guide
  • I’m completely knocked out by Calvin Trillin’s posthumous love letter to his wife Alice in this week’s New Yorker. Alice Trillin, who died in 2001, 25 years after her lung cancer surgery, was given a 10 percent chance of surviving beyond a year or two. A non-smoker, she defied those odds long enough to raise her daughters, who were four and seven at the time, to participate in a long and happy marriage, to accomplish important work as an English professor, and to be an advocate for other people suffering from cancer. Ironically, her heart was eventually destroyed by the radiation treatments that had saved her life, or as Trillin writes: “In other words, you could say she died of the treatment, rather than the disease.” But the treatment gave her those 25 years, which according to her husband, she would have seen as a great deal.
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    Among the many wise words Trillin attributes to Alice is that “….the measure of how you held up in the face of a life-threatening illness was not how much you changed but how much you stayed the same, in control of your own identity.” He really nails that. I’m not sure I could have articulated that thought so well, but I couldn’t agree more. It’s why I hate being called a survivor, and why I cringe whenever someone else thinks having cancer is the main part of my identity. It’s not. Having had cancer is not who I am, it’s just something that happened to me. It’s part of my life experience, and I can’t deny it away, but it’s not primarily how I view myself. Wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, writer, are much higher up on my list of identifying characteristics.

    Trillin also mentions how his wife was stunned when, after a speech, a medical student asked: if she knew she would recover and have a normal life span, would she have chosen the cancer experience? Trillin doesn’t give Alice’s answer. I don’t presume to know what Alice would have said, but I certainly know my answer. Definitely not. Whatever hard-won wisdom I gained wasn’t worth the pain and suffering. Does anyone, except for a naive medical student, actually think there is some benefit to having cancer? I’ve read and heard about people who say that having cancer was a great wake-up call, and that it helped them live their life in a fuller way. Those kinds of comments completely mystify me. I'd be interested to know what Alice thought.
Published On: March 23, 2006