Despite the fact that I have incurable cancer, I consider myself lucky. I have, in spite of myself and my many “idiosyncrasies,” a number of good and caring friends and a truly loving, wonderful family. I even like my in-laws (but please don’t let them know). As difficult as all of this has been and continues to be, it is no small thing to have the type of support with which I have been blessed.
Yet, despite my loved ones’ best efforts, I think that cancer is ultimately a one-player game. Try as they might, no one can fully appreciate what it is like to endure cancer unless that person has also had to personally confront it. It is not, of course, for a lack of concern or empathy. Nor is it that cancer is so unique – there are sadly so many different and horrible diseases out there that to rank them in terms of misery would be pointless (although I do think cancer would be a strong contender for at least the quarter-finals).
Even among cancer patients, including those with the exact same diagnosis, the experiences can be so varied. For example, at my pre-chemo “education,” where they tell the already horrified patient all of the known terrible things that could go awry during treatment, I recall the N.P. explaining that one of the side effects from a certain drug/toxin was diarrhea. In the next breath, however, she informed me that another potential side effect of that same drug was constipation! How could this be, I wondered in amazement, that the same drug that creates one person’s inability to go is the source of another person’s inability to stop going?
Similarly, when I was undergoing chemo at “The Center,” I was constantly amazed at how all patients there could be broadly categorized into one of two groups: Many were like me. We did not hobnob with the other patients, had an appropriate degree of solemnity about the experience – I mean, not to sound dramatic, but we were literally fighting for our lives – and just wanted to suffer in silence. The most we would do was to covertly peer at the other patients, wonder quietly what kind of G-d forsaken cancer they had and try to forget. I would often just gum away at my complimentary graham crackers while wondering how I had come to this place in life, which was located in the same zip code as Death.
The other group of chemo patients, however, apparently thought they had just been booked on a six-day Carnival Cruise with all-you-can eat, including, of course, the midnight buffet. These patients were boisterous and a joke a minute. I do not know if most of this group doesn’t get out much, but you would have thought that this is the most exciting thing that ever happened to them. (In their partial defense, it might be the most exciting, but in the way that being in a plane crash is exciting.) These shut-ins would not shut up.
And while I was dressed in loose-fitting layers of comfortable clothes, my rival gang of chemo patients were decked out in cabana wear. All that was missing was some zinc oxide on their noses and a group excursion to the pantry.
To combat this isolation, I have briefly considered from time to time the idea of joining a support group. There are many to choose from, befitting the many types of cancer that one does not get to choose from: I could seek out one for chemo patients. Or I could go very narrow and join a group for fellow CLL’ers. I could also go a bit broader and join a blood cancer group, just in case I wanted to hear about the suffering of people with lymphomas and other leukemias in addition to my own cancer. Yet I have never done so because, to be completely honest, I am afraid. I am afraid of hearing what terrible things these others have experienced and then wondering (read: worrying) if those terrible things might then happen to me.
I have also tried to approach this from the altruistic side. That too, however, is problematic. For one thing, my prognosis might be better than some of my fellow cancerites. I would not want them to feel worse about their situation after hearing about mine. Cancer gives one enough to worry about – I really do not think I should be doubling down with guilt. More troubling, I am just not sure what there is for me to give in this context. I am pretty much running on empty these days, so I feel as though cheerleading, while I could muster it, would be more than a tad insincere. Does someone with cancer really need any more disingenuity? You get ample amounts of that with the well-intentioned but completely useless “It will get better” and “The nausea is not that bad.” And, of course, the worst of them all: “It will all be okay.”