can easily count on one hand the number of positive things about living with
cancer and still have a number of fingers left over for other purposes, such as
crossing them to assure I do not jinx myself by thinking that there is anything
positive about cancer. (Having
cancer does little to make one less superstitious.) But one of the few fingers I could count is
one for being able to share my experiences through writing about them.
is such a terribly isolating experience in countless ways. Consequently, when I am able to express my
thoughts and concerns and fears – and even some hopes (fingers still crossed) –
I am able to mitigate that loneliness to a not insignificant degree. By sharing these writings I have been able to
connect with others who are unfortunately also having similar experiences. And despite the best intentions of family and
friends, what it is like to endure cancer is really only truly knowable to others
who share such a diagnosis.
Cancer attacks its victims in countless ways. Although most people who are not personally impacted by this disease would naturally assume that cancer only wreaks havoc on one’s body, that is far from the extent of the damage that it does. Cancer is also an overpoweringly destructive force on one’s emotions and mental well-being. As if that were not enough, cancer never really releases one from its clutches – even if in remission or cured. Once impacted by this loathsome disease, the fear of its recurrence or resurgence is always with you.
And yet there is still more trauma that cancer can create. Because of the sheer unbridled terror that the mere mention of “the C-word” instills in people, people unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with cancer often find themselves somewhat abandoned. Cancer is frequently too much for many friends of those afflicted with it to bear. I know of countless cancer sufferers who have lost friends once their diagnosis became known. This is not, in my view, so much a character flaw in those erstwhile friends as it is an understandable inability to face that which is so terrifying. And because of this terror, many are left at a loss as to what to say or how to help and just divorce themselves from the overwhelming situation altogether. It is regrettable, of course, but not incomprehensible.
Even under the best of circumstances – when there is little impact on existing friendships – cancer is a largely solitary experience. Try though they might, even the best-intended and most giving of friends cannot unfortunately – and fortunately – truly know what it is like to endure cancer unless they themselves have suffered under it. The relentless and pervasiveness of the ramifications of cancer are largely incomprehensible to one with cancer, much less someone trying to understand it a step or more removed.
Yet, in spite of all of this – or perhaps because of it – I have actually found something quite surprising when it comes to the intersection of cancer and friendship: I have made some very dear friends who are unfortunately experiencing many of the same trials and tribulations that I am. I never expected cancer to be a source of anything positive, much less something so vital as friendship. But to my delight it has been just that.
A not insignificant portion of my amazement about the evolution of these new friendships stems from my long-standing attitude towards having cancer and, more specifically, how it has impacted my own views about myself. If there is anything that I possess in great abundance, it is self-criticism and its frequent cohort, self-loathing. Having cancer does nothing to boost one’s views of one’s own self-worth. In addition to all of the self-critiques I leveled at myself for years beforehand, the last six years since my diagnosis with leukemia have enabled me to add an entirely new genre of criticism – incurable, chronic illness. If that doesn’t make one feel worse about oneself, then that person is a true glass-half-full type if there ever were such a thing.
Not unrelated to this diminution in self-worth, I also experienced a reluctance – bordering on outright apprehension – of associating with other cancer victims. I rather selfishly was concerned that by hobnobbing with others who also possessed an overabundance of defective white blood cells, I ran the risk of meeting those who were worse off than I and thus who were living foreshadows of my future. At the other extreme, but equally self-concerned, I dreaded meeting those with my diagnosis who were much better off than I. I was genuinely apprehensive that such others would make me feel worse about my situation and, to be blunt, even bitter about the hand I had been cruelly dealt.
Despite all of this, however, I somehow managed to forge some wonderful and deeply cherished friendships. It would probably be facile to explain this away as misery loving company, although there is of course both plenty of misery with cancer and plenty of those suffering from it. Rather, while that simplistic explanation might reveal some truth about why we have been brought together, the reality is much more complex and even, perhaps, metaphysical: There is something so profoundly altering about being diagnosed with cancer that it results in a new understanding of that which is important and that which is not. Of course, matters that were always important such as family and living in the moment become only more so with the imposition of a cancer sentence. But beyond that, commonalities and the essence of what makes one a good person take on an outsized role.
In light of that, I have made a number of friends who unfortunately share my predisposition to a malignant existence. Yet, without cancer, we would not have likely met, but more profoundly we might not have given ourselves the opportunity to become friends. By hewing away that which is truly not important, I have found myself able to form such strong bonds with these new friends as we share our experiences not just about cancer, but about what life really means and how much we value it. We come from different places and have many different life experiences that have brought us to this common place, but cancer has lifted the fog that otherwise would have been impenetrable to these friendships. And while cancer may have done irreparable damage to our bodies, the one thing that it has actually improved was our ability to truly see.
being discharged from the hospital with no more knowledge than what I went in
with – other than I didn’t have the flu (and, yes, of course, I had gotten my
flu shot before) – I went home and tried to start recuperating from whatever
this was that was so afflicting me. My
plans for convalescence were regrettably quite premature.
night I barely slept a wink. In fact, I
was so uncomfortable that I did not even bother to try. Lying down was completely infeasible as I
could not breathe and coughed even more and although as a dad I am generally
quite adept at falling asleep in any form of armchair – particularly with the
television on – even that home formula for Ambien failed me. It was one of those nights where you wish it
were already day – despite how unbelievably tired you are – because at least
then you can give up the charade of trying to sleep. And you can also complain to others about how
little sleep you got.
last we left our most unwilling protagonist – me – we were preparing for a trip
to the emergency room due to my high fever and myriad other symptoms. Although this may strike many as completely
nonsensical, I have a steadfast belief that the last place one wants to
be when ill is at the hospital. After
all, there are all manner of sick people there.
This is even more troubling for someone like me who, as we know, has the
immune system which at this stage could most charitably be described as non-existent.
we were really not left with any other options.
Because this was Sunday – as these types of emergencies only occur outside
of normal business hours – my only choices were the ER or an urgent care. Melissa and I briefly contemplated the
latter, but we felt fairly confident that as soon as they heard I had cancer
then they would wash their hands of the matter (the matter being me) and send
me off to the ER anyway. So we decided
to cut out the middleman – and the extra co-payment – and go straight to the