Katherine Russell Rich
Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Russell Rich
Katherine Russell Rich died on April 3, at age 56, after an almost 25-year (yes, that’s what we said) battle with cancer. While death, no matter how expected, is always a shock, to those of us who knew Kathy for the better part of three decades, the news feels especially unbelievable. Kathy was often on her way to or from one treatment or another—though she rarely talked about it—but she ALWAYS came back to have another lunch, teach another course, write another book, make another friend. Her intelligence, her fierceness, her just-the-right-amount-of-kooky sensibility shows through in this piece she wrote for O in June 2010, and will inspire us always.—Sara Nelson
In 1988 I was diagnosed with cancer and launched into an alien world—a bizarre, distorted landscape—and I didn't have a map. Where I'd come from, people defined their lives by the things they loved: their friends, their family, those nights in late summer when shooting stars are as thick as miraculous blizzards in the sky. But in this new world, definitions can be hard to come by. Here, certainty is an illusion.

Here, you live among outlaws, your body's own cells: Whole phalanxes of them turn mutinous, become silent killers. This is a country that's both narrow and vast, where geography bends at the edges and landmarks vanish like Cheshire cats. "Oh, we don't use that drug anymore," a doctor will say, five minutes after the drug was invented. So you have to become your own cartographer, make your own way. You grow fluent in an ornate language you won't use on the other side. "Neoplasia" and "hematopoietic" are words that can startle new acquaintances, especially if, as is true with me, for the most part your treatments don't alter your appearance. If your side effects are outwardly mild, you slide across borders undetected. (In my case, there was a notable exception: the stretch, 15 years back, when I had a bone marrow transplant and was feeble and white, a bald worm woman, ghostly. When I looked in the mirror then, what I saw was like an unmasking—as if up to now, I'd been passing myself off as a healthy person. The vision was shocking, but not unexpected.)

Five years later, the doctors told me that the average life expectancy was two and a half years with stage IV breast cancer, breast being the variety I have. (Stage IV means the cancer has spread, is deadly. No turning back. No cure.) I hasten to add that two and a half years is just an average. It's not unusual for people to reach five, even ten. Get much past that, though, and they decide you fall into a small subcategory of people who inexplicably live for years: 20, 30, or with all the new stuff coming down the pike, who knows? Maybe a normal life span.

Here, through the looking glass, in the back of the beyond, there is no normal. There is no certainty, but that's true in the old world as well. (This is something many people don't want to know, so I mostly keep it to myself.) Another truth that applies to both places: Uncertainty is not necessarily to be feared. It can make your life bloom, give you power; at least that's what I've found. "So what?" I'd tell myself. "Just try it." Sometimes choices can be ill-advised; frequently, at first, some of mine were. Later on, when I got my footing, wondrous things occurred.

In the megatron months before and after my bone marrow transplant, I conducted an experiment: What would happen if I said exactly what I thought? Fights on planes, that's what. Gallows-humor jokes that can make people blanch. "Sure takes the term out of terminal," said of advanced but sluggish cancer, requires a special audience. Near-ejection from art galleries. In that case I'd opened my mouth, as if possessed, and voiced what had been my private opinion of the brittle gallery owner who was aggressively dismissive when I politely asked for directions. What I said, exactly, was: "You're a bitch." She looked startled, answered slowly, "Well, maybe I am." And I felt, for the moment, elated.

When you're afraid to move forward, ask yourself, "What's the worst that can happen?"

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