Exercise “Space Cancer – disease or adventure?”

Finally, a new post! :) Thank you for your patience. It’s strangely tough to really fit writing in to half an hour or less a day, before work. By the time I get in the groove, I have to stop and take off for my job.

This piece was from another of Soren Bowie’s pants prompts: “Space Cancer – disease or adventure?” I chose the name “Matrix Bissel” for the author because I was thinking of Beatrix Potter and Matrix sounded like something futuristic that someone could conceivably name a kid someday (why not, right?). Bissel is, of course, a vacuum cleaner company, and there I was just using what first popped into my head. I work doing data entry for grocery store products, so I see a lot of brand names on a daily basis.

Matrix Bissel’s Adventures with Space Cancer

In Matrix Bissel’s first, last, and only children’s novel for middle-grade readers (otherwise known as “books with chapters”), entitled Mary Elizabeth’s Adventures in Fairyland—called “incredibly twee” by some critics, “imaginative and clever – an instant classic” by others, and “a total ripoff of Lewis Carroll, Frank L. Baum, and any Victorian poet with an opium pipe” by some—a little girl named Mary Elizabeth travels to a dream fairyland while in the fevered throes of an unnamed illness. The illness is never mentioned. This is important to note: space cancer is never mentioned, by name or implication. Someone who hadn’t heard, by way of rumor or ill-advised interview, that Mary Elizabeth’s Adventures in Fairyland was inspired by Bissel’s childhood bout of space cancer, and might even assume young Mary Elizabeth suffered from a flu, which caused her fever dreams. Nowhere is treatment mentioned, not a background to the disease or even any other symptoms. The novel starts with six year old Mary Elizabeth in her undefined sickbed, surrounded by dolls and stuffed animals, drifting off to sleep and into adventure.

Bissel, in her ill-advised interview with one Polly Zest on the morning show The Morning Zest, didn’t even say that Mary Elizabeth is supposed to have space cancer in the novel. “I neglected to define the illness on purpose,” Bissel said. “That way, any ill child can imagine that perhaps Mary Elizabeth has the same thing they’ve got, and can feel a closer connection to her and her adventures.” Yes, she went on to say, perhaps the child reading has space cancer, or leukemia, or cystic fibrosis. It doesn’t matter. Mary Elizabeth’s adventures were meant to be a comfort to all sick children, and sick adults too, she added with a smile, knowing already what the media was saying about the book’s cross-generational appeal. It was only the fairyland that was loosely—loosely, she stressed, and elaborated  by right of artistic license—based from the visions and hallucinations she experienced as a child while suffering space cancer.

Despite aggressive treatment, young Matrix’s cancer seemed terminal. Her parents took her out of the treatment program, brought her home, and waited for her to die. It was during this period that she fell into what would be her final coma, and dreamt deepest. In her novel, the friends that young Mary Elizabeth makes in her fairyland journeys hold a farewell party for her. In interviews, Bissel said she thought this meant she was about to die, that her failing brain had conjured up a comforting parting scenario.

The novel ends there, and that is where the disease usually ends, in death. Young Matrix, however, woke up, tumors shrinking down, damaged pathways rerouting. A year later she was in full remission.

They called it “space cancer,” though it was really a form of brain cancer, because it was first diagnosed in the asteroid miners and their families. The scientific name was a mouthful anyway, so space cancer it became. No one really knew what triggered it: some bacteria or virus lying frozen and dormant until brought into atmosphere on dust on the men’s environmental suits, or the chunks of rock smuggled home—against policy—as souvenirs for family and friends eager to hold a piece of outer space in their hands? Perhaps some undetectable radiation, or even just exposure to solar radiation (though the suits had shielding, of course) in the unprotected vacuum of space.

Symptoms included fever, hallucinations, psychoses, loss of motor and verbal control, and finally coma, while tumors pressed on various parts of the brain, firing synapses, cutting off signals, and generally going off in a sparking mess like a lit match landing in a box of assorted fireworks. What was interesting was that the victims didn’t seem to be in any pain. Almost universally, the tumors triggered an overproduction of endorphins. The first sign of the cancer was often unexplained euphoria. People grinned through their comas. They died peacefully, mercifully, without suffering, as their brains went dead and their organs shut down.

Parents of kids with terminal space cancer were comforted that at least their children wouldn’t suffer at the end. Some took this into consideration when making their decision to end treatment when it seemed hopeless. Enduring through chemotherapy, surgeries, and radiation treatments entailed more suffering than letting the disease win out.

Few survived, some with aggressive treatment, others –like Bissel—seemingly miraculously after giving up on it. Those who did corroborated her tale with uncanny fidelity. Of course, many pointed out, before the novel came out no one said they saw fairies beckoning them to join them in their magical realm that lay alongside ours, a happy world of constant joy and wonder, free of pain and cares. It was the power of suggestion, most experts claimed. People read the story and it colored their perceptions.

Others believed she was a visionary, even a prophet. When before some cried the space cancer was a warning or punishment from an alien race for encroaching where we weren’t wanted, now some claimed it was a gift from these same aliens. Extraterrestrial sentient life still eluded humanity; perhaps they had passed on to this next world and had left the means to follow. Perhaps what appeared to be death was really only the death of this world’s body, while the spirit traveled to the next.

Others interpreted the text of the end and pointed out the farewell party. Perhaps the fairyland wasn’t the destination, just the stopover point, the holding area, the limbo between life and whatever came next.

Many have believed stranger things.

Now any vivid dreamer feared, or wished, they had space cancer. They flooded clinics. Cults emerged, setting up the ailing but not yet indecipherable as prophets, their fevered babblings recorded and interpreted. Charlatans no longer flogged bogus cancer cures; now they sold compounds they claimed would cause the cancer. People started deliberately exposing themselves to radiation and other carcinogens, bribing miners to smuggle rock from the asteroid mines. They’d make these into talismans, rub them on their skin, crush and powder the rock and then inhale or ingest it. Most of the time, they’d end up killing themselves some other way or developing another, more terrestrial form of cancer.

It got so bad that Bissel herself spoke out against it. Space cancer wasn’t magical, she said. It was an affliction she had luckily survived, and was able to draw from for inspiration. Her dreams and hallucinations weren’t visions of another world; they were the product of brain malfunction, the same as current sufferes.

The fringe of “true believers” didn’t listen to Bissel. They called her the first prophet, and pointed to the seemingly miraculous circumstances of her ordeal with space cancer. It was obvious, they felt, that she had survived for a reason, to bring them this glad news.

Bissel eventually gave up arguing with the interpretations of her novel. She couldn’t win – some lauded her as a hero for comforting the sick, others thought her a prophet, some chided her for exploiting something as horrible as space cancer for personal fame and wealth, and still others accused her of starting or encouraging the cults. Whether Matrix Bissel ever wrote again, she published nothing, living in seclusion and leaving her house only when necessary.

The cancer came back in her sixties. This time, there were no dreams of fairyland. This time, the visions were saturated with terror. To her only companion, her live-in nurse Hazel Parish, Bissel reported nightmarish hallucinations, sudden unexplained panic attacks. Was it a new form of the cancer? Did it change the second time?

As news of Bissel’s illness, but not the new nature of her visions, reached the outside world, cultists declared that the good prophet was being rewarded and finally allowed to return to the world she had described to them. Cult activity intensified, as believers sought to join their prophet in her journey.

Hazel urged Matrix to diffuse this by revealing the horrific nature of her new visions, but Bissel refused. She begged her friend not to tell, even after her death. “Maybe it’s a fluke,” Bissel said. “I don’t want to take away their comfort.”

After Bissel died, Hazel told them anyway. She went on the same morning show Bissel had for her first interview following her book’s success, The Morning Zest, now hosted by Polly Zest’s younger successor, and revealed in lurid detail the terror of Bissel’s final days. “We had to have closed-casket because of the frozen look of horror on her face,” Hazel sobbed as the host handed her tissues.

At first, people thought Bissel was right: the other sufferers of space cancer still died with peaceful smiles, even those who had relapsed or were in their later years. “It’s because she doubted,” the cultists said. “It’s punishment for profiting off the disease, or misleading people, or spreading false gospel,” said her critics. Those who simply loved her story continued to read it, perhaps a little sad that the author came to such a horrible end.

Then, here and there, sufferers of space cancer advanced not into dreams but nightmares, waking and sleeping. Doctors were baffled but full of guesses. “It’s just the tumors developing in different places. It was just chance that it affected different systems before.” “It’s another strain of the cancer. For some reason it targets fear centers instead of pleasure centers.” Cults struggled to come up with explanations. Distraught parents fretted over how best to help their children.

And at her late friend’s house, packing up her things for the estate sale, Hazel Parish found another manuscript hiding in a desk drawer…

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~ by Amber on July 14, 2012.

2 Responses to “Exercise “Space Cancer – disease or adventure?””

  1. This is great, you’ve carved out a really intricate world here. I’m glad I could have been a part of it.

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