October 3, 2013. Some of you may not know that I once had aspirations to become a rock star. I didn’t, but failing that, I’ve been known to rewrite song lyrics, sort of like a female Al Yankovic (Allie Yankovic?), except maybe not as weird. A few years back, I was feeling particularly musical, so I opened an account with Karaoke-Version.com, downloaded some free audio mixing software, hauled out my headphones & an old mike from my singing days, and got to work. Some of the remixes that emerged surprised me, like the one I wrote for this post. And, yes, that really is me singing all the parts. Someday, I’ll have to do the video. And maybe go on tour. Road trip, anyone? All kidding aside, a friend of mine reminded me of this song earlier, and when I reread this post, I realized that this is yet another topic that comes under the ‘real-awareness-isn’t-pink-or-pretty’ heading. ~~Kathi
Where would be without our gal pals, our BFF’s, our sherpas? Who else would we hang out with, eat cake and dance with? With whom would we dare to dress up as hippies and Trekkies for Halloween? Who else would laugh uproariously at our goofy, stupid jokes and not laugh at all when we call them with bad news?
You know you have a real friend when she willingly slogs through both fair and foul weather with you. And you would do the same for her, without question. But when one of you is diagnosed with cancer, the landscape of friendship can twist and turn in ways that neither of you anticipates.
No matter how many crises you’ve endured in your life, how many metaphoric fires you’ve put out, how many losses you’ve wept over, you can’t accurately predict how you will react when you find out you have cancer. Before I heard my diagnosis, I’d had my heart broken and trampled in every way possible, several times over. I had even helped close friends who’d been diagnosed with cancer. I’m a caregiver. I’m good in emergencies. Rising to the occasion is what I do. But when the C word was applied to me, none of that seemed to matter. I don’t think I’ve ever been more stunned in my entire life. I was home alone when I got the news. I felt like a very small, vulnerable animal, chased toward the edge of a cliff by the hounds of hell. All I wanted to do was dart into a cave and not come out again, ever.
Live Long and Prosper
Of course, I didn’t. But I wanted to. What I did do was instantly go into a kind of instant hyperdrive, my adrenalin kicking my brain and psyche into a warp speed so severe, I was nearly paralyzed. Okay, I don’t actually need to do anything this instant, I told myself. If I couldn’t find a cave, I could do the next best thing, which would be to crawl under the covers for the rest of the evening, and pray for sleep. I immediately realized the folly of that idea, so I thought that perhaps I should get on the computer and arm myself with information. That’s one of the things I do when I feel helpless. And I’m good at it. With a little knowledge, I can cope with anything. But a small, calm voice inside warned me about trying to cope with this by myself. You need help, it said. You need to ask for help, even though you’re not very good at it. Even if you don’t know what kind of help to ask for. You need to let your friends be your friends. You need to pick up that phone and call them. So, after several deep breaths, I did. Indeed, one of the first people I called was the Trekkie in this photo.
It’s awful to have to tell your friends you have cancer. It’s awful to lay that burden of helplessness upon them. I’d been on the receiving end of that burden enough times to know how wretched it is. What can anyone do, really, short of waving a magic wand? Well, in the first place, they can listen. And gasp. And express their shock, outrage, dread and heartache. And tell you they love you. And you know what? That helps a lot. And you start to think that maybe, just maybe, you don’t have to cope with this all by yourself. One of the hardest conversations I had that evening was telling a friend whose sister had died of breast cancer a few years earlier. My heart ached even to say the words. But she didn’t fall apart. She stepped up to the plate, like I knew she would. That’s why we’re friends. “It’s early,” I remember telling her, as much to reassure her as myself. “It’s not invasive. I’m going to be fine. I’m not going to die anytime soon.” “Of course you’re not!” she said, indignant at the very idea. “You’re not allowed to!”
Inside out and upside down
Last week, one of my friends, someone I’ve known for sixteen years now, someone who was there for me when I rode my own roller coaster, told me she had breast cancer. I know better than most people what the statistics are. And it’s part of my job to help people with cancer. When I meet a new patient with breast cancer, I can transform my personal experience into genuine empathy and useful assistance. I have come to know so many women with this stinking disease, I was beginning to think perhaps I was nearly immune to feeling shocked by this news. I was wrong, of course. This was my friend, and I was stunned. And more, I was shattered and overcome by a fully-informed feeling of déjà vu. All my own emotions came roaring back, and I couldn’t stand the thought of her having to experience any of them. I knew too much. But after a hug and a few heartfelt cuss words, I clung to some measure of outward calm and asked her what she needed, assuring her that I would give her any kind of help she wanted from me.
Perhaps the hardest challenge for me now is that, so far, she hasn’t asked for my help. I could deal with her tears, rage, fear, confusion, questions, anything she threw at me. But I don’t know how to deal with her silence. I can theorize, analyze, try to interpret it. But feeling it does not yield to my intellect. During the few, brief conversations we’ve had since she told me, I have had an acute sense of how overwhelmed she is now, how much she feels like a deer in the headlights. I can’t change that, I can’t analyze it away. Each of us processes the calamity of cancer and its implications at her own speed. The last thing we need is a load of unsolicited advice we are not ready to assimilate. We are under siege already, we are already in panic mode, and we don’t need someone pushing and nattering at us. I know all that. I know that above all, I need to take my cues from her. She knows I’m there. She knows I know.
But it’s hard not to feel like I’ve become contagious. She is one of the people who knows what I went through myself, who heard all along what unanticipated miseries I endured, what untold and unpleasant surprises I had to sort out. It’s hard not to feel that what she most needs from me is for me to keep my distance, because on some atavistic and unconscious level, she might catch some of what I went through. It’s hard not to fear that our friendship may suffer because of this terrible thing we now have in common.
This is not the first time that cancer has made me feel contagious. Heaven knows I experienced all manner of distancing tactics and outright stupidity from various friends during my own ordeal. Certain people I’d known for years just disappeared from my life as soon as they heard, did not return emails or phone calls. Painfully, at a time when I didn’t need any more pain, I learned to cut my losses and get on with it. My dearest friends became dearer and I made new friends who have become dear. But the subtle and overt changes in friendships and relationships is one of the things no one warns you about when you are diagnosed. And it can be more appalling and disillusioning than treatment itself.
If I’ve learned anything from my own experience, I’ve learned how to wait, how to be patient with myself and others. And so, I remain hopeful about my friend and our friendship. She is not stupid. She is not a fool. She is one of the most thoughtful and generous people I know. But she is traumatized. And she is worth my making the extra effort to give her what she needs from me. Even if, for now, it’s nothing.
I’ll try not to hover nearby
awaiting your word.
Gasping at glimpses
of how much you struggle,
I wish somehow we could fly
far away until this passes by.
I wait for your phone call
at the reasons you don’t call.
Achingly anxious of all of your bad dreams,
Did I hear a goodbye or even a hello.
You are one person.
You are not alone.
You have friends who love you.
We will get you through together.
Listening and waiting
for someone to cure you,
the doctors confuse you with their words.
No one is lying
but cancer is something that lingers
silent as a ghost,
sometimes choking all our hope.
“Helplessly Hoping”, original by Crosby, Stills & Nash
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