Romancing the Cancer

I spent two weeks in Colombia earlier in the month so I’ve had Romancing the Stone on the brain in a big way. Pretty much every day I was there—in Cartagena or Bogatá or Anapoima—one of my friends would turn to me, a propos of nothing, and say, “THE Joan Wilder!” It was a running joke and I loved it. But there’s more to it than that. This movie and I go way back, and like my entire path to becoming a romance writer, we had a complicated courtship.

My friend Laurie made me go see Romancing the Stone when it came out. I was pretty sardonic at that point in my life. I tried to be optimistic—I mean, I knew I was born on third base and all that, a great education, all the benefits, and I didn’t take any of that for granted—but the truth was I had a bit of a sneering problem. A movie about a romance writer? Lame. I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and feeling important.

“Trust me,” Laurie said.

So I went. In the first few minutes I almost walked out. Remember the wild west Sweet Savage Love-type opening? I stupidly thought that was the whole movie. Anyway, as soon as it cut to a disheveled Kathleen Turner sniveling at her typewriter, living alone in her apartment (scratch that—living with her cat in her apartment), I was hooked. Because, YES!, that’s the bit of truth I needed to be lured into the fantasy.

The genius of that movie, for me, was that lure, because by the end, when Michael Douglas pulls up Third Avenue or Park Avenue or wherever on his yacht with his crocodile boots, I was completely invested. Working Girl. Princess Bride. Same idea. The happily ever after in those movies was just far enough out of reach to let me believe in it. 

Anyway, that type of transformation, from sneering skepticism to joy, has happened a few times in my life. It’s sort of embarrassing, as this sort of self-actualization tends to be. What was I trying to prove by being so angry? That I was socially conscious? That I was grave?

Yeah. Whatever. Life’s too short. I can still be socially conscious and grave when the occasion calls for it, but I don’t need to be a pill about it. This realization came on gradually: I started to change; I laughed more.

I’ve written in other places about my own cancer diagnosis in 2004. It was a lot like being dragged to Romancing the Stone.  The initial “No fucking way!” followed ever-so-gradually by the strange beauty of the statement, “I’m going to die.” Then learning I wasn’t going to die anytime soon (that was the muddy-face-in-the-crotch moment). That’s when the train leaves the station. That’s when you machete off the heels and run through the jungle with Michael Douglas. Because, fucking-A, you’re going to die at some point so you better get moving, sister! In other words, you’re ALIVE. Do something! Do it now! What are you waiting for? 

For me, that meant writing all the stories in my head and not worrying so much about whether or not they sucked. If one person read them and liked them and smiled and felt better about life, then that was purpose enough for me. Hey, I thought, so what if I’m not curing cancer, at least I’m not causing it either.

So. Cut to ten years later. Someone very close to me was diagnosed with lung cancer. Treatment was imperative. Surgery wasn’t an option. We circled the wagons. We dealt with it. We went to MD Anderson in Houston.

It feels sort of terrible to admit, but what a great experience. Hanging out at MD Anderson is a lot like going to a romance convention. There’s a uniformity of purpose. Everyone there is working toward the same goal: #endcancer. Some people have bracelets identifying them as patients. Some people have badges identifying them as faculty and staff, but everyone is on the same page. It feels safe in the same way romance conventions feel safe for me. They are both places where, as one of my favorite books says: It’s Okay to Be Different.


But even that is misleading. What Todd Parr really says to me is, “It’s okay to be different…because we are all the same.” We are all exactly the same in our hearts. We all have the capacity to love and the capacity to hate. Either one can be cultivated. We can sneer or cheer. Either one takes practice.

When I read about white privilege or Miley Cyrus or homophobia or Syria or whatever the latest dividing line happens to be, I just try to focus on people’s hearts, their motivations. Are they pointing out social injustice in the hope of repairing it? Or are they merely throwing gas on the fire? Do they want a happily ever after, or would that happily ever after—that absence of conflict—leave them empty, with nothing to do? If I get a sense of that, I get a sense. If someone seems perpetually more interested in conflict than resolution, I’m not going to stick around for long.

The life-is-short thing came back in full force while spending all those hours (and hours) in MD Anderson waiting rooms. There are a lot of people with cancer. There is a lot of waiting. And you know what waiting means? People watching! So much great people watching. And it’s like this intense super-heroic version of people watching, because everyone in the room is probably going through one of the most intense episodes of their entire existence. The stories. Man. Don’t even get me started. So many stories. So many lives.

And what do people do while they’re waiting there, while hope and fear and every other emotion pings through their brain? They read romance novels, of course. There are romance novels everywhere at MD Anderson. In the waiting rooms. In the public areas. On a seat in the corridor. Well, hello Jennifer Crusie. Hiya, Linda Lael Miller. Oh, Judith McNaught, where have you been all my life? I see you Jude Deveraux. Nora, Nora, noranoranora.

I have all sorts of theories about this, but after writing that last paragraph and realizing how I addressed each of those authors as my friends, the truth became so obvious. They are my friends. They are loving. People who believe in the power of love write those books. Those are the people I want with me when I’m going through a hard time. (Well, those are the people I want with me when I’m going through a happy time or a sad time or anytime really, but that’s just me.) I want people around me who can say things like, “I am so proud of you! You are amazing! Go you!” and mean it. And that’s what those writers do. They reinforce our belief in human goodness.

Will there always be people whose lives have driven them to hate? Hell if I know. But when we live in a world where a bunch of physicists and oncologists and regular human beings are super heroes who can shoot a laser beam (cue Austin Powers air quotations: “Lay-Zerr”) into a person’s body and eradicate a tumor like a Star Trek episode, I’m going with love. Because I love every scientist and nurse and patient advocate and volunteer and romance writer who made the past six months some of the most miraculous of my life. I love them a lot.