What I Learned From Cancer

Any politician who is overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and underfunding medical research—is not keeping us safe.

A doctor mixes a chemotherapy treatment.
A doctor mixes a chemotherapy treatment. (Win McNamee / Getty)

My daughter squirmed on her back, rocking the changing table. She bicycle-kicked her 1-year-old legs. No shoes or pants could be removed. She held her arms down. No shirt could rise over her head.

Perhaps she sensed my mood, and my wife’s and Ma’s mood as they talked somewhere outside her closed bedroom door, and responded in kind. But I was not thinking about transference. Irritated, I expected her to feel sorry for me, to smile and comply, to go down easily and happily that night, a year ago today—as if she knew a gastrointestinal doctor had found cancer in my colon that morning.

At some point while reading to her, I stopped. I retreated into my thoughts as my daughter yanked up and started draining her sippy cup like she was between rounds. I checked myself in my mental mirror. Two-sided like a coin, the mirror conveyed what my research saw in society on one side and what my research saw in myself on the other side.

I had been using the mirror to write a book, striving to answer a question people had been asking me since I started speaking in 2016 on my history of racist and antiracist ideas, Stamped From the Beginning. Writing this new book, How to Be an Antiracist, I had spent nearly every one of my quiet hours submerged in examining the mostly racist life of human society, and self-examining my own mostly racist life, to conjure and lay out how we can fashion antiracist lives. My constructive criticism looked painstakingly at society—and at myself.

Writing this book had thrust me into a mental ordeal of healing. It made me more self-aware, better able to see the ugly source of my irritability with my daughter, to admit and correct my idiocy and self-centeredness in the moment. And it prepared me for the physical ordeal of healing that was coming.

As my daughter took her final gulps of soy milk, my irritability lingered, this time directed at the person I saw in the mirror. I realized my daughter was doing what I needed her to do. It was what I would ask of nearly everyone I met in the year that followed.

She did not cover me in pity. She treated me like she always treated me—like it was just another day, like my whole life had not changed, like there was, indeed, a tomorrow. She anchored me for my fight of a lifetime.

She gazed up at me, perhaps wondering why I had stopped reading. “Dada. Dada.” I jumped out of my mind. My frown smiled as I looked down and took her sippy cup. My boisterous reading voice returned like my verve for life. Her frown smiled as she looked up, not knowing.

She did not know that for several months I had been steadily losing weight and becoming easily fatigued and filled with bowel pain. She did not know that for several months I had been sitting on toilets only to produce nothing, returning hours later to produce nothing again. She did not know that since Thanksgiving I had been defecating blood clots almost every hour. She did not know that I had managed these symptoms and pressed on, not self-caring until my life partner saved my life by forcing me to get a colonoscopy that morning, on January 10, 2018. I had become adept at self-examining my mind, but not my body.

As I read to my daughter that night, she did not know my body was going to be scanned the next day. She did not know they would find my cancer was metastatic, Stage 4. She did not know that the five-year survival rate for this type of cancer is about 12 percent. She did not know that her father was likely to die.

My daughter reinforced that night what my partner, Sadiqa, and Ma had formulated earlier that day. Sadiqa’s shock that morning quickly turned into a dogged belief that I could survive. She somehow thinks I can overcome anything; I believe the same thing about her. Months after we wed six years ago, I resolutely believed that she could defeat breast cancer. I likewise believed Ma could defeat breast cancer when she was diagnosed two years after Sadiqa.

For Ma, the cancer diagnosis was like a doctor telling her she had a cold. When Sadiqa and I told her about my diagnosis over breakfast after the colonoscopy, it was like a doctor telling her I had a cold. Ma is nearly unflappable, a steadying force on my emotive Paps, who survived prostate cancer a decade ago. “We will deal with it,” she said that day, as she always says, no matter the adversity. She hits us with that Harriet Tubman look when we slow down. Wallowing in self-pity is a capital crime in her book.

We had a basketball court in my backyard in Jamaica, Queens. An intense and physical two-on-two was halted when I came down all wrong on my wrist. Perhaps Ma was watching from the kitchen window as she washed dishes. I ran inside crying about breaking my 12-year-old wrist. She ran warm water over it and ordered me back out to “finish the game.” Paps provided the emotional support; Ma, the resolve.

Hours after my morning diagnosis, I sent the draft of an essay to an editor at The New York Times. By Friday afternoon, I was bundling through hospital rooms, undergoing testing and visiting doctors. In waiting rooms and while waiting in doctors’ rooms, I exchanged several emails with the editor, finalizing the essay that argued “the heartbeat of racism is denial.”

I argued that the heartbeat of antiracism is confession. Writing the piece forced me to confess my fear of death. I confessed to my loved ones that I did not want to die before finishing How to Be an Antiracist. I wanted it to be my last literary contribution to the world. I wrote it critically and carefully, untroubled about a backlash I might not live to see. And ironically, the book will come out this August, a week after the 37th birthday that I intend to see.

On most days last year, I worried more about whether I’d finish the book than whether I would survive metastatic cancer. Or to be more precise, in the quiet of the day I’d worry about finishing the book, in the quiet of the sleepless night about finishing life. My focus on writing How to Be an Antiracist—and by March, on writing essays for The Atlantic—was perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.

Writing consumes all. In the silence I can scrutinize the collected scholarship and analysis, listen clearly to my assessments and reflections and inventions, paint their picture clearly and attractively on the canvas. Nothing else matters in those moments of creation, until creating brings me—and hopefully the reader—back to what matters. Nothing else humanely exists in those moments of creation, until creating brings me—and hopefully the reader—back to our shared human existence.

In the hours of each day when I managed to submerge myself inside the writing zone, the metastatic cancer was an afterthought. The symptoms from the six months of chemotherapy, from January to June last year, were an afterthought: my marathons of tiredness, the bubbling nausea, my hands and feet tingling and darkening and drying and blitzering, making them unusable at times. I was not thinking about my hypersensitivity to cold, that breathing in cold air and drinking cold liquids hurt my throat, that touching frozen products frostbit my fingers, that strong winds of cold immobilized my body. I was not thinking of the tremendous pain and exertion it took to leave my home, especially in the winter, to exercise, and meet with folks, and interview with folks, and speak before folks—almost all of whom did not know. It was hard to know. My chemo medicines did not kill my hair. My heavy protein consumption and weight lifting actually allowed me to gain weight. I usually kept my discomfort inside.

I was not thinking of any of the symptoms during writing sessions. But after all the writing thoughts, it was back to fighting, or rather, enduring.

Amazingly, the cancer symptoms started receding almost immediately, as the tumors receded. The tumors shrunk to the point surgeons could open me up and remove what was left at the end of the summer. In what they removed, they only found scar tissue from dead cancer cells. All the postsurgical agony felt worth it. Nine months after thinking I might very well be in the dying 88 percent, I had a good chance of landing in the 12 percent of survivors. I have a good chance of joining the more than 15 million cancer survivors in the United States, spanning every race and place, nearly every American family.

I have a good chance of being able to never stop mourning the millions of our loved ones who died of cancer, such as my uncle who died last year, such as an uncle and grandfather who died months before my birth in 1982. And I can return to my work with a new sense of perspective.

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death. Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Nearly 600,000 Americans die every year from cancer; roughly 20,000 die annually from homicides. What if we blamed politicians for every single cancer death like we blame them for every single murder? What if a cancer death was as newsworthy as a murder? What if we demanded more medical researchers and doctors and nurses and nutritionists on the streets to keep us safe? What if we demanded more hospital beds like we demand more prison beds? What if we looked at industrial waste and fast food like we look at gangs of organized crime?

For decades, racist ideas nurtured my fears of being murdered by a black or Latino or Middle Eastern body. Today my own striving to be antiracist, my own elementary mathematical skills, my own diagnosis nurture my fear of dying of cancer, suicide, an accident, septicemia, influenza, stroke, diabetes, or heart, kidney, upper-respiratory, Alzheimer’s, or liver disease, which altogether account for 75 percent of all deaths in the United States.

These fears pushed my writing pace last year. But the more my fear of death changed into the wonder of survival, the more I reflected on what I was writing. If I could live on, why not live on to be antiracist? Why not live to be fully human and see all others as fully human, and fight to ensure our policies see and treat all humans fully and equitably?

It was this living on that was hard to envision a year ago. When I stood over my daughter’s crib, I rocked her longer than usual in the darkness. I held her tighter than usual. I did not want to let her go. I did not want to let my own life go as her father. But I thought, in that moment, that we have to let life go to see ourselves and heal ourselves for the better. We have to let life go to have life.

I let her go. She turned on her stomach as if she’d see me again, as if I’d survive.