I’ve never been an avid fan of the Saw series as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the first three, but I checked out when Amanda – the most interesting character to me by far – checked out. With Jigsaw’s release however, I found myself revisiting the series and suddenly realized I very personally related to the movies on new and nightmarish levels.
I have cancer, you see. Technically it’s terminal, though so insidiously slow-growing I’m expected to linger on (maybe even thrive, if I’m so lucky) for years. It’s not even the first time I’ve had cancer.
When I was fifteen years old, I wanted to die. I didn’t know it but I was struggling with deep depression, and while I never seriously contemplated suicide, I often wished I would just… cease to be. Then I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was everywhere, and when the doctors put me under for a simple outpatient biopsy, the weight of multiple tumors crushed my lungs. I stopped breathing in a facility not-at-all equipped to deal with such an emergency. They wheeled equipment across the parking lot and opened me up to remove cancerous tissue by hand, just to keep me alive.
Imagine my surprise when I woke up and, instead of a minor cut on my neck, I had a 9-inch incision in my chest and a breathing tube down my throat. Imagine my greater surprise when they turned the air off to see if I could breathe on my own and my lungs, exhausted from months of carrying the extra weight of four fistfuls of tumor, collapsed under the strain.
When you have a breathing tube down your throat you can’t speak, so they gave me a laminated sheet with the alphabet on it for the purpose of spelling out what I wanted to say letter-by-letter. As I violently suffocated in a hospital bed, I frantically spelled out ‘I-D-O-N-T-W-A-N-T-T-O-D-I-E.’
You don’t need a degree to understand why I found Amanda to be the most interesting and relatable character in the Saw franchise. The moment she said “he helped me” in the aftermath of John Kramer’s sadistic self-help game was one of the most chilling and profound in that first installment. To me it was the scene where the movie was elevated from what would later be referred to as ‘torture porn’ to a work with something slightly loftier to say about the human response to mortality. Because for years after my own near-death experience and the 18 months of chemotherapy that followed, I walked around saying cancer was both the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. I still struggled with depression but the suicidal thoughts I’d long harbored were gone, replaced with the vivid memory of the moment I realized with terrifying clarity that I most certainly wanted to live. I was – as John Kramer would put it – “instantly rehabilitated,” or as close to it as my questionable brain chemicals would allow.
Fast-forward nineteen cancer-free years to the day I was diagnosed with Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma. ACC is incredibly slow-growing and incredibly rare, with only 1000 new cases reported in the U.S. annually. The same cancer that killed the Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and too many others had spread throughout my face and neck and metastasized to my liver, probably over a period of years. In part because ACC typically grows at a snail’s pace, chemotherapy doesn’t work on it. My diagnosis was essentially a death sentence in slow-motion. How soon that sentence would be carried out depended on how much I was willing to sacrifice. And once again faced with impending death, I very quickly realized I was willing to sacrifice anything it took.
It was during Saw VI’s cold open that I again found myself relating to the horror onscreen on a deeply personal level in the unlikeliest of ways. This time it was to two people forced to cut pieces off of themselves in a race to see who could cut more. The person who cut off the most was rewarded with continued existence.
This is the last two years of my life writ large.
My first major ACC surgery was a twelve-hour attempt to excise the cancer from my face and neck. Because ACC likes to grow along nerves and had reached my seventh cranial nerve – the one responsible for facial movement – the whole thing had to go, forever paralyzing the left side of my face. The cancer had spread into my middle ear, so the hearing on my left side had to go too. My ear is purely for aesthetic purposes now. They removed dozens of lymphnodes and a sizable portion of my neck. It’s dangerous to walk around with this much neck missing, so they removed a large piece of my thigh and grafted it in place of the lost tissue. Months of physical rehabilitation later and I still struggle with that leg. They also removed every tooth in my head.
The doctors butchered me to save me and I had enthusiastically signed on for it. As I watched the first few minutes of Saw VI unfold, I saw only one significant difference between that first surgery and the two people hacking away at their own limbs in the hopes of prolonging their lives. I had the luxury of anesthetic.
ACC has a ludicrously high recurrence rate, so it didn’t stop with the surgery. I needed six weeks of radiation therapy, which required my head to be bolted down daily to a table via a claustrophobic contraption worthy of Jigsaw himself. They told me going in some people don’t complete radiation treatment. Some patients get to a point where they feel like they can’t take anymore and they simply stop. I understand why now. By the time six weeks was up, my skin was quite literally and excruciatingly melting off. Mere consciousness was an invitation to agony I’d never imagined.
It still wasn’t over. When I recovered from radiation, it was time to get back to cutting, this time at the multiple tumors in my liver. Eight more hours of surgery. One-third of my liver removed. Even then they missed a couple of imperceptible tumors, which meant recently I had to return so they could physically burn holes into my liver.
(I’m wrapping up, so cue ‘Hello Zepp’)
This brings us to today, and while I’d love to say my ordeal is finally over, it isn’t. I continually pay, literally and figuratively, for the sacrifices I’ve already made thus far. Nerve damage. Hormone imbalances. Recurrent infections. Staggering expenses. And the cancer is likely to continue popping up here and there, like a sick game of Whack-a-Mole from Hell, so there’s every chance I’ll have to keep cutting away at myself until they find a better treatment for it or it appears someplace truly lethal, whichever comes first.
I was surprised to find so much of my own ghastly experiences reflected in a series that largely became known simply for elaborate deathtraps and convoluted lore. But I shouldn’t have been, because from the beginning that’s been the Saw franchise at its very best; human beings desperately sacrificing parts of themselves in an effort to keep the void at bay just a little bit longer, whether it’s a piece of their soul, or a pound of their flesh. The grisly story of my life, until finally, one day, when I have nothing left to give…