No one chooses to enter this annihilating club, but somehow we’re all shoved in unwillingly into this abysmal group which is bursting at the seams. Cancer doesn’t discriminate; it’s just as likely to strike Steve Jobs as ordinary Steve at your job.
I’ve had my chance to rage against the disease. Both my grandparents had cancer. My aunt is currently battling ovarian cancer. I have gone through two major cancer scares myself but luckily have avoided the real deal. It feels like a cycle in a sick game where we all take turns in the different cancer-related roles.
Now one of my dear friends has gone and gotten tagged. Because that’s what it’s like. You’re running around this world engaging in a friendly game of life as a happy human and suddenly, as if by an invisible beam from a Satanic Cancer Commander in the sky, you are struck and it’s your turn at the battle. Cancer is hardcore biological warfare where we’re all soldiers with an invisible enemy waiting to be called to the front.
How do we protect ourselves if the enemy won’t even show its face? We can out-run cardiovascular disease. We can organic, non-dairy, non-GMO our food supply, but can we hide from our genetics. But what about when our genes aren’t the culprits. Then what was it? Plastic bottles? Underwire bras? Deodorant? The alkalinity of the water? Tampons? Blue fucking M&Ms?
It’s life – and it comes with a big, fat, yellow caution tape that says CANCER AHEAD.
I’m not sure what my role is as “Friend of Cancer Patient.” When my friend told me she had drawn the short straw, I coped the only way I knew how: with words. I came up with some metaphors I thought could be enlightening as if witty words stood a chance against this diagnosis. But no matter how poignant my metaphor, it’s all fucking cancer. It’s the Holocaust and we’re all either jews, gypsies or gays. My words can’t eradicate those morbid cancer cells any more than my words can instantly make your breasts grow back, like an earthworm’s tail. They cut off the end and a new healthier boob grows back. My words do nothing but make noise.
What can I say? I tried to launch a verbal chemotherapy attack by putting an F-bomb with every sentence. Never just “cancer,” always “Fucking Cancer!” Pretty ironic that we started by calling it the “C-word.” Pretty soon they might as well change the medical classification to just be “Fucking Cancer.”
After my initial F-bomb artillery, I told my friend it was OK to cry and be angry. Then I researched her specific cancer so I could understand her exact enemy. Finally, I Googled “What to do when your friend gets cancer.” Cancer.net gave me some academic tips for supporting a friend. It also had a list of things I should say versus those I shouldn’t.
Things to say:
- I’m sorry this has happened to you.
- If you ever feel like talking, I’m here to listen.
- What are you thinking of doing, and how can I help?
- I care about you.
- I’m thinking about you.
Phrases that are not so helpful:
- I know just how you feel.
- I know just what you should do.
- I’m sure you’ll be fine.
- Don’t worry.
- How long do you have?
I quickly realized that I cannot allow my friends’ cancer to become my drama. It’s not about what I could say to make me feel helpful. It’s not about what I could do so I could feel like a good friend. It’s not about me at all, but all I could think about is what I could do. Even as I write these words, I realize they are ultimately for me.
I felt guilty for realizing that I had engaged in an ego-centric habit. The truth about this diagnosis, whenever it strikes in your periphery, is it forces you to hold up a mirror to your own mortality. In a galaxy of shining stars, cancer always finds the brightest ones.
So what will I do?
- I’ll listen.
- I’ll take myself out of the equation. (No room for my “what if’s” to demonize themselves here.)
- I’ll laugh.
- I’ll curse.
- I’ll bring tissues and make-up and smoothies and kale salad.
- I’ll find alkaline water in glass bottles.
- Mostly I’ll bring hugs, light, and love from the bottom of my soul.