Jam and toast

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

prostate cancer chart_numbers for the PSAhttps://prostatecancerinfolink.net/2015/01/14/low-detectable-psa-after-prostatectomy-watch-or-treat/

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? Hardly. 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.




  12 comments for “Jam and toast

  1. May 20, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    Very well written, karenlee. I also think there are nuances/layers that make the patient perspective and the caregiver perspective different while sharing the journey. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 20, 2018 at 4:40 pm

      Oh, you are absolutely correct, and I agree. A journey it is and will be. Thanks for stopping by. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. March 20, 2018 at 9:42 pm

    Beautifully written! Thank you for your perspective and an explanation that can help all of us be more compassionate. Big hugs!


    • March 21, 2018 at 3:14 pm

      Thanks my sweet friend. I just hope that if/when it hits others, we can be there for one another to help ease through this rough time. Friends are invaluable I’ve recently discovered (again), and I am grateful. ❤


  3. March 20, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this! It helps those of us who have not had cancer, or had a close family friend with cancer, understand better what those who do are going through. When my friends had cancer, I did ask questions about the specifics, but was never sure if that was right or not. And I can only imagine that it does indeed change your perspective and help you sort out what is and is not important. Sending good thoughts your way…


    • March 21, 2018 at 3:11 pm

      Hi Ann, thank you so much for your thoughts. I truly hope it does help, as, obviously, before it hit here, I was clueless. I feel that asking about someone’s health and diagnosis is better than not saying anything at all. As Automatic Gardener mentioned, sometimes we feel pretty alone when people don’t seem to come around or when they say very little. It’s just tough all the way around. As always, I appreciate your insight. Have a great day! ❤


  4. Susan
    March 20, 2018 at 1:54 pm

    I think this is a very beautiful piece of writing. It captures it, the emotion, the numbness, the brutal life invasion. I particularly agree with your analysis of how hard it is to reach out and say the right thing. Every time I emailed you, I thought to myself, “Am I doing this right? Have I blown it? Am I helping?” I wasn’t sure what had helped me, so I had nothing much to go by. I mean, I had to stop talking to my sister as much as practical. I had thought it necessary to tell her because it now puts cancer in the family, and her daughter needs to know. But my sister was so upset by it that she couldn’t accept the idea of a positive outcome. So it became hard to talk to her for a while. On the other side, there is such a fine line between trying to sound positive and actually sounding uninterested or blowing it off as not serious. Cancer is always serious. As I have said before, it is a big, bad wolf of a word.

    I envy your ability to write about it. I have been working on poetry, and I can’t seem to get it down yet. I can’t find the form and the rhythm of it all. I remember once, back when we lived in Maryland, our garage was broken into twice with items stolen, and then someone tried to break into our house right while we were home. The creepy invaded feeling of that still stays with me. Invaded. That’s sort of the same emotion that cancer gives. It sneaks in without permission, it steals your complacency. I have seen it make people grow, other people shrink. I don’t know what it did to me. It made me wary in one way. In another, it brought out my desire to adventure before I maybe I can’t any more. It made me get my papers in order—will, power of attorney, etc. It made me stop resenting, yes, that I have to clean my husband’s jam off the counter (literally). It really is beautiful jam.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 20, 2018 at 3:17 pm

      Thank you Susan; there is so much here I don’t know where to begin, but I am grateful you posted. I think one thing we can all agree on is that it’s most difficult to find the right words, not just adequate but helpful, soothing words, when we most need them. I think it’s interesting your sister’s reaction about a positive outcome. How did she change over time (was she more accepting?) with respect to your great outcome? Blowing it off as not serious or “not as bad as” is the feeling I got when a friend compared this cancer to the cancer of someone she loved who died. All cancer is serious. Period. I love your analogy. Cancer is invasive and it steals. It also makes us appreciate as we’ve discussed. I am so glad you are over your ordeal and are thinking of using poetry to work through it. Keep me posted. Thanks for your great post. ❤


  5. March 19, 2018 at 9:13 pm

    You did a great job explaining the thought process here. I don’t know much about cancer in form you are addressing. I’m lucky that way but I know several that have survived and come out changed by it. It puts life in clear perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 20, 2018 at 9:47 am

      Thank you, Marlene. Aside from checking his numbers yearly, I didn’t know much about prostate health either. There isn’t much cancer doesn’t change, but people survive it and can live happy, healthy lives after treatment. This is where we hope to stay. Thanks for stopping by. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  6. March 19, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    I really don’t think anyone knows exactly what to say or do in these situations. I don’t do social media and only told family and select friends. You are the only blogger I mentioned this to. I was actually surprised about how little I was contacted or asked how I was. I think people are to scared to ask and don’t want to upset the patient. I brought meals to a friend with breast cancer for a year and never knew what kind she had or how bad it was. It was never mentioned. I found the radiation waiting room was the place the ladies let it all out and we had many discussions. I guess we were all in the same boat and it was easy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 19, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      On both sides, having or watching the big C, it’s real tough to know what to say. I completely understand this, now. We kept it off social media as well. I just can’t put my life or our lives on FB or any other type of media. Blogging is different. I’m not sure how, but it is. I receive tremendous pleasure (therapy) from writing, and reading others’ blogs. This is creative and helpful and I feel a great sense of community here, unlike elsewhere. I am glad you responded here because it helps me to understand more about his awful journey. Thank you SO MUCH for your thoughts. My best to you, always. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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