I once asked my cousin whether she thought about her cancer on a daily basis. When I asked, she was in remission, again. Writing this, admitting I said it, makes me cringe, and my naive question fills me with embarrassment.
A few years later I called her brother after he’d been diagnosed with cancer and found I could barely speak. It was the quietest, most awkward call I’d ever been part of. Prior to the diagnosis we’d been the chattiest of friends. I’m still ashamed.
I once felt cheated and very left out when I learned that two friends I’d met in college had cancer but hadn’t told me. Never mind years had passed between college and cancer, that we’d gone our separate ways. These ladies were not mere acquaintances. One was in my wedding and the other was my roommate. Two separate cases and “twice cheated”….is pretty darned selfish.
I believe people mean well, that most try to be sympathetic, even empathetic, when cancer strikes. That said, now I get it; I now believe that unless it hits YOU, unless cancer visits YOUR house, it’s hard to fully understand what the cancer patient experiences.
Last fall cancer barged in. My husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The day we were told, November 1, I felt numb. I recall sitting at my computer when he found me to break the news. When he left the room, I simply sat and stared. I don’t know for how long. I was numb. On day 2, I was pretty shaky. I remember thinking that if anyone touched me, came near me, or said anything I didn’t like, I would not be held responsible for my actions. I felt I was about to break. By day three, I was pissed. Actually, I was filled with anger, a fierce anger threatening to turn to rage. God help anyone who got in my path let alone looked at me.
I discovered my college roommate, Shelley, had cancer from online pictures of her and her siblings. She’d lost her hair and was thin and pale. She wore a hat. My first thought was “Shit! She has cancer.” I contacted her and along with another college friend, we got together for our first visit in 30 years.
I also learned of Sarah’s cancer from a photo. I hadn’t seen her but once or twice since my wedding when our kids were very young, many years prior. Not only was she in my wedding, we worked together for several summers. I just knew that someday–after we’d found each other on social media–we’d sit on someone’s porch, break out the pizza and beer, and laugh about the good old days. Not knowing of her illness, I felt robbed.
Cancer is a teacher. Yours or whether it has afflicted someone you love; there are lessons. It grabs us by the short hairs. It’s that pinch behind the upper arm–you know the spot, the one that hurts the most–when parents or teachers wanted our attention. It’s a slap upside the head. It pulls us along previously unwanted and unexpected pathways, paths not of our choosing. It can take a life, but it’s also life-affirming.
It opens our eyes and brings into focus what we may not have realized before, not even closely realized. Cancer, no matter the outcome, stretches us and makes us GROW.
- I know for sure that I’ll never again ask a cancer patient whether they think about their illness daily. NOT ever. Of course they think about cancer. How can they not? The fear, the worry, the anxiety of not knowing what comes next is their constant new companion. Cancer may rob them of their life. It often does even after months or years of grueling treatments. OF COURSE they think about it, Karen, of course.
- When I called my cousin at the time of his diagnosis I could not speak or help. I didn’t know what to say. Others later told me it was more important that I called rather than what I said. Not hard to do since I literally choked. Still, it’s important to have a plan, to find something positive to say. It’s about thinking vs. reacting.
- Cancer is all about numbers, ranges, categories, scores, and time. Before surgery, they watch the PSA creep up until it becomes dangerously too high. When it reaches 4 ng/ml or higher a need for treatment/biopsy is recommended. After surgery, it’s about the new PSA value, how close it is to zero, and as long as it stays well under the dreaded .2. Suddenly, categories matter:
With a reading of “less than .06,” and the words “negligible,” my husband is in the lowest, safest category, right now. Meaning, we live from test to test, every three months, at which time–should the PSA rise–we may be into a different category, which may mean a very different pathway.
That said, regarding numbers: it is unproductive to place oneself into a category or range and BELIEVE “this is it,” that this is the new normal or new treatment, or new outcome. Reread that sentence.
I say reread because it is wise to remember that these are only numbers, they are guides, and as such, DO NOT predict any one person’s outcome. Even so, does this help us live comfortably? Does it reduce anxiety? H
ardly. To live this way, to accept this new way of thinking, is a stretch. I’m not comfortable. I’m not relaxed. I’m being stretched.
4. On feeling cheated, this is a tough one. I’ve been watching my friends and family and how they’ve behaved since our diagnosis. I’m watching who reaches out and who doesn’t. I’m listening to what they say, what they do. I’m not judging; human behavior is endlessly fascinating, and I’m reflecting on my own.
I’ve learned it’s nearly impossible for the cancer patient (or his/her family) to be the one(s) to reach out. It’s not within us. You simply don’t feel like calling your friends to announce you have cancer. There are several reasons why.
–It makes it real.
–You aren’t prepared to help people deal with their feelings.
–Sometimes, people want to tell you about THEIR cancer experiences.
–You are hurting and have nothing left to give.
–It’s difficult to admit you may be dying.
Finally, I get it.
5. Perspective. When something like this enters the scene, one begins to look at life and each other in a very different manner. The garage that needs an overhaul isn’t quite as high on the list. The stack of newspapers piled high in the office isn’t such an eyesore. The jam on the counter is a wake up call that my toast-lover husband may not be here one day. Jam never looked so beautiful, especially on the counter.
Both cousins are gone. My college friends are gone.
I’m a little wiser now.