A Frightening Topic
So here we are at the beginning of August in the Sunshine. Many folks are on holiday or at the cottage for a few days. Its a lighthearted time, full of swimming and boating, driving with the windows down (or not), eating watermelon (or not - did you know some people don't like watermelon?), smores, bonfires and sleeping bags and sand in your bed.
So why would I choose this time to write about cancer? Because cancer is always there, hiding in each of us and plotting to take control and to steal our energy, our well-being, and our personality. What a minute - what? Who is this goofy woman anyway and why would she say such a stupid thing?
Twenty years ago, my sister-in-law, whom I had known since I was five, was diagnosed with cancer, and not just any cancer. Breast cancer. The one that steals our view of our feminine selves and laughs at us as we struggle. And worse, Bev was only 28. The doctors told her "get your affairs in order, this is a very bad kind of breast cancer". She had a baby and a husband, and a blossoming career in printing sales. Her family rallied around her, demanded that she be able to have reconstructive surgery, that her condition not affect her sales career. And it didn't. For twelve years, Bev did her gardening with gloves on to protect the one arm where there were no lymph glands to protect her from infection if she cut herself. She elected not to have anymore children, lest the hormonal change cause the sleeping cancer to awaken. And she told us all that what she really wanted was for her daughter to graduate from high school and to have enough money to graduate from university. Her fixedness on those goals was a force to be reckoned with.
What Bev never told us, and maybe never told herself, was that there is no such thing as recovering from metastasized breast cancer. Your time can be stretched, enhanced, made more comfortable. But there will be no recovery.
Eight years ago, it happened. Bev came to our house to tell my husband. She had been suffering from the most awful cough all winter. So bad she had broken ribs. Until finally a doctor sent her for a bone scan, and found that her ribs were a swiss cheese web of cancerized bone and tissue.
We were not permitted to cry or to grieve in any way that she could see. She would say, "Oh no, I remember from last time, you're going to write me off. I'm not dead yet!"
When one of us is diagnosed with cancer, we as a society do something that alienates the cancer patient even more than the disease. For us, the person becomes about the disease. We forget who they were, who they are. When we see them, we say "How ARE you?" with that significant tone of voice. We ask how the chemo is, if the radiation therapy helps, if there is anything we can do. Some of us are even a little patronizing, as if the cancer patient has reverted to an earlier stage of development.
I worried about Bev every single day. I fumed at her the times she told my husband not to bring me unless he could make me understand that I shouldn't ask how she WAS". Why did I do it? Because I had to do SOMETHING and it was all I COULD do.
Here's what I should have done. I should have helped her with her garden, because knew she loved a pretty garden by the pool. I should have asked if I could pour chlorine into the pool and helped her check the levels, knowing her obsession with its clarity. I should helped her to entertain in her home, since she so loved to have friends over. I should have groomed her dogs for her, regularly and without being asked.
My point is that I should have continued to connect with Bev on the same points we had always shared, and I should have done what it took to help her to continue to be herself, the beautiful blonde woman with the dazzling smile who loved red wine and loved to inherit my shoes when I was finished with them. The woman who won the Crystal Briar in Trenton twice, once just post breast cancer, and once with stage four bone cancer. I used to say that she was the most determined woman I have ever known. I don't say it any more. It seems wrong.
This spring, another friend, this one an internet friend in New Mexico was diagnosed with prostate cancer that had spread to the bladder. I felt that familiar tightening in my chest, but perhaps because we live many miles apart, it was easier for me to keep from turning Kevin into just Kevin's cancer. I wanted to allow Keven to remain himself, living in his mountain home with his beautiful coonhound Boone who hunts fish in the trout pond. Kevin has, for the moment, beat his cancer, thanks to an incredible anti-cancer diet concocted by his sisters, some alternative treatments, and some traditional ones too. Kevin can go on cutting down massive trees and making furniture out of them. He can clear the snow on the mountain in the winter and brag to his friends about how much there was.
Also this spring, another friend was diagnosed with cancer. She has struggled with digestive and reproductive cancers for four years. She has pared her life down an inch at a time, giving up her log home and her dogs, and a million other things. She now lives in an apartment in the same building as her mother. Of course, it's a stunning apartment, because of who she is. On Thursday she had a six hour surgery to prolong her life. Although we have never been very close, I will be her friend. And I will remember that she loves horses and dogs, and that she has a shoe habit that surpasses mine. And that with cancer coursing through her system, she went hiking through the Rockies. I will not let cancer steal her personality, at least not with me.