Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Writer Caitlin Flanagan On Having Stage IV Cancer During The Pandemic


Caitlin Flanagan says there is something good about having Stage IV cancer. Nobody thinks you're being dramatic if you say things couldn't get worse. But now she has Stage IV cancer in the middle of a pandemic. Her essay in the current Atlantic is "I Thought Stage IV Cancer Was Bad Enough." And Caitlin Flanagan, the writer and social critic, staff writer for The Atlantic who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary last year and whom it is always an honor to have on this show, joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAITLIN FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: First, how are you?

FLANAGAN: You know, I am surprisingly well. I have Stage IV breast cancer, which - I've actually had some form or another of this particular cancer for 17 years, including after being metastatic, having an 11-year remission. And now I'm in a recurrence. But I really can't catch COVID because my lungs were damaged in some previous treatment. So I am much more afraid of the COVID right now than I am with the cancer, which is being managed really well right now.

SIMON: I mean, one of the tensions that play out in your beautiful essay is that here you are among - because of your circumstances, among the most vulnerable people that we identify. And yet it must be difficult for you to get medical care and attention now.

FLANAGAN: It is hard for all of us that are struggling with maybe a chronic illness or an emergency situation to get the medical care that we need because the hospitals are so incredibly cautious, understandably, about bringing people who are already in compromised immune situations into hospitals where there is, you know, a really high possibility that someone in there that you might pass by going somewhere is a relative of someone who is maybe in the hospital, maybe has COVID. So my big scans have all been pushed out in date, which is a little anxiety-producing - not because, oh, I don't think you need a scan right now but just because I think we need to keep you out of the hospital right now.

SIMON: You write that, for the past 20 years, you've had a certain way of kind of measuring the different stages of your life.

FLANAGAN: Yeah. Well, I have twins. And they were 4 years old when this thing hit me out of the blue. And, you know, I was a young mom with young kids. And when I'd had that first appointment for just a routine checkup, and I left having been told I had aggressive breast cancer, you know, I was truly in shock. I shouldn't have driven home. He didn't want me to drive home. The doctor didn't want me to. And I had thse little, beautiful boys who were about to turn 5. And I was in the middle of horrendous treatment when their little preschool had their graduation. And I was just a wreck, sort of thinking, this could be the only graduation you'll ever go to. But then I made it to elementary school totally fine. And I made it to high school graduation. So I was really in line now to go to college graduation - just feel like, OK - my timetable - I'm really winning at it. And then of all things, this COVID hit and canceled all the graduations.

SIMON: Caitlin, there's a lot of understandable anger in your essay.

FLANAGAN: Well, I do feel that, from a public health standpoint - and that's not anything I would call my field - but I just would say kind of as an American, there are certain things that no matter who's in charge, you didn't even realize you had an assumption were sort of taken care of. And huge public health issues were one of them. And if I were in New York instead of LA, I would absolutely be dead by now because I would have been listening to this cant that it's not a serious problem. It's the flu. Take some Tylenol. And so I'm really angry.

I'm just angry that we're in this situation where we're trying to keep our loved ones alive, where we're trying to stay alive, where we're trying to keep our careers alive, so we can feed all these people that depend on us. And the president of the country usually gets some nefarious underlings system that gets the lies out in previous, you know, administrations.

SIMON: Yeah.

FLANAGAN: But to have the guy himself behind the ostensible seal of the president saying these things, I'm angry about that. And I guarantee you there are people back east who died because of the way he talked.

SIMON: What are these days like for you?

FLANAGAN: They're not that different from anyone else who's on this sort of quarantine or safer at home. But it's just kind of managing my health. It's interesting. If anybody sees the essay that we're talking about, there's a picture of me with my little boy the day...

SIMON: Yeah.

FLANAGAN: ...Before I was diagnosed. And that little boy is the person who's allowed me to talk to you because he set up all the ITs. He's like a 22-year-old man who's stuck at home. So I have to always - every time I look at these two kids of mine that are stuck home from college, I'm like, well, I cannot complain a bit about anything.

SIMON: Caitlin, they don't need you any less just because they're older.

FLANAGAN: I know. But, you know, what a wise woman told me when I was very close to death once - I said, they need me. And she said, examine that thought. Do they really need you? It would obviously be better for them to have me when I - when they were young, etc. - but that there are many people here who will care for them and love them and know who I was. And my sister is here. So they'll be OK. They'll be more than OK.

SIMON: What do you look forward to?

FLANAGAN: I really want this COVID to be over. And I really want to go somewhere. I just really want to go on a trip and just see something new and - yeah.

SIMON: Caitlin Flanagan - her essay in the current Atlantic - "I Thought Stage IV Cancer Was Bad Enough" - thanks so much for being with us. Take care.

FLANAGAN: You're so welcome. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.