If you work for HGTV, I should warn you that the above video contains backhanded compliments directed at your television channel. Watch it at your own risk.
Enter Donna Lee Lista, cancer survivor and OncoLink’s only interview subject who got the fun tapestry as a background. Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She never smoked. After going at her treatment options like a hellcat, calling all the best hospitals and finagling her way in with the best doctors, she began chemotherapy and commenced to go through an emotional rough patch characterized by crushing loneliness and fear of relapse. After she was cured, she tried to altogether erase the memory of cancer from her conscience. After some time, she realized that she had a penchant for making her story known. She began lobbying for cancer awareness and now has some impressive credentials to her name. She’s even appeared before Congress.
The HGTV tie-in came when we started talking about what it was like to go through the process of treatment. Donna Lee, during times when it all became too much to think about, would sit in front of her TV in her favorite chair, and zone out for long periods of time. Her preferred TV destination was HGTV, because she says she “just wanted something that left me in a place where I didn’t have to think about anything for the hours that my eyes were open, and I could just stare at a TV and watch them decorate a house or do something very superficial, that wasn’t important, because it just kept my mind off of it [the cancer.]” So, HGTV producer who ended up on the OncoLink blog page: congratulations on getting somebody through cancer treatment, and sorry about the insult to your channel’s intellectual merit.
“Sometimes it just collapses on you,” she said. That’s what our interview was about: the forms of torture that cancer can take, and what it does to the people who get it. Donna Lee’s personality is outwardly electric; she has an easy, matronly charm that has a way of making you like her immediately. That’s what makes her memories hard to hear. She carries them with her like nightmares.
As it is with nightmares, in those times when we can only get back to sleep because someone is there to sleep beside us, sometimes the best support for a cancer patient comes from the people who are willing to “be there and not say a thing.” Donna Lee ran into the problem that many patients face: support that becomes overly fussy— too many suggestions, recommendations, unwanted counsel, and hollow babble to fill the space in the examination room. Sometimes an affectionate presence was all she could really want or handle. No interaction with an independent set of neurons. She needed the HGTV of human company.
What I got from Donna Lee was that cancer is an incredibly reductive experience. What once was is sapped and shriveled; what lies within is bared and shivers. There are no choices, only needs. To take care of those needs, sometimes we have to subdue the instinct to solve the problem and just address the little inconveniences that arise, to take it, as Donne Lee said, “day by day,” to “not look at the whole big picture.”
And eventually, the experience melts into the background, its resting place on the edge of the mind. It doesn’t go away. At the end of the video, Donna Lee is caught by it. I asked her when she truly felt like she could say she was a survivor. She said, “I’d say this last year was the first time that there are days that go by where I forget that I’m…”
“…I don’t worry about being a cancer survivor. I can’t say I forget.”