On Getting Bad News

By David Biale

They say that it comes unexpectedly, like a thief in the night.  But it is only unexpected because we can’t imagine it beforehand.  Our verdict has always been signed and sealed; just not yet delivered.  The doctor who tells you your diagnosis, often with cheery optimism that “it’s not as bad as it sounds,” is only a messenger trying vainly to stem the tide of biology.

            I have tried to be clear-eyed and not unduly optimistic throughout this whole process.  Each piece of bad news – the initial cancer diagnosis, the biopsy, scans, subsequent blood tests and scans – hits like a punch in the gut, driving my brain to places it was not used to visiting.  But early on, I noticed something strange and interesting.  The punch receded and a certain realism took over.  If this is the new reality, then I will live with it – until I can’t. 

            The disease is relentless.  Pressured by natural selection, induced paradoxically by starving its sources of testosterone, it finds a way now to slip around its need for its peculiar hormone, becoming “castration-resistant.”  It now marches implacably toward its final goal, the conquest of my body.  Doesn’t it realize that its immortal cell lines will die when they kill off their host?  Or maybe that is their purpose to begin with.

            Testosterone: never thought about it much, except that it was always there, working in the background.  It supposedly turned me into a man, invigorating – all too often – sexual fantasies that I could have done without.  I am its product.  My children – my genetic destiny – are its result.  But now it has become its own enemy, condemning the body it nourished so long to an untimely death.

            In the end, we have only words: the doctor’s words, my words.  I have made my livelihood from words ever since first grade when the teacher issued a ruling that everybody could talk except for me.  I first made love with words, in the form of letters.  And then I made a living with words, written and spoken. We substitute our words for the thing-itself, the insentient cells with their genetic marching orders.  But words must suffice since as long as we can put this into language, we are still human and not a tumor.

            They say that they can “buy me time.”  Yet time is not a ripe peach for sale in the market.  It is the sand in an hour glass that cannot be inverted.  Whether it runs out in three months, a year or ten, it will run out and we will return to the universe.  That is what the bad news means and why we need to hear it loud and clear.  The wordless universe awaits, a place where there is no bad news, where there is no news at all.

About the Author:

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History Emeritus at the University of California, Davis. His most recent books are Hasidism: A New History (with seven co-authors), Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah and Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought. Earlier books are Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, Eros and the Jews and Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians. David serves as Chair of the Humanities Subcommittee for The Blood Project. Click here to learn more.