Friendship and Cancer
Please read this one.
Most of us who have been through cancer acknowledge that the single most important part of the experience, the primary blessing, the only thing that could even possibly be considered a reward (and it is ridiculous to consider anything about having cancer to be a reward) is the friends we make. No one understands us, no one "gets it" the way that another cancer person does. This is why we seek each other out in support groups and online sites and waiting rooms. This is why we sometimes huddle in the corner at parties with someone we have just met, sharing our stories and our hearts.
I know plenty of women who maintain intimate friendships with women whom they met during a group or at daily radiation therapy of through a neighbor twenty years ago. As members of the sorority that no one wanted to join, we are sisters.
From Dana Jennings in the New York Times:
MAY 11, 2010, 12:11 PM
The Friendship of Cancer
By DANA JENNINGS
Two years after I found out that I had an aggressive Stage 3 prostate cancer, I've learned that, more than anything, cancer is about stories and friendships. That was made clear to me again last month when I went back home to New Hampshire, where I visited my old friend Chris. She is being
treated for breast cancer, and Chris, her husband, Dave, and I spent a full night catching up, trading childhood hick stories, talking cancer.
There are no friends like the ones from back home. The three of
us know intimately the grooved stairs, burnished with varnish,
at our old high school, Sanborn Regional in Kingston, where the
steps were worn smooth by more than a hundred years of
harried students. We've inhaled sunrises tinged by the salty reek
of the Atlantic Ocean some 10 miles away. And the "Fremont
handshake" — named for a small town that sits next to Kingston — still makes us giggle like schoolkids: Lace your fingers with the thumbs dangling down like a cow's udders, then ask the shaker to "milk" your thumbs.
And now Chris and I are friends in cancer.
So we talked … and talked … that night, telling each other medical tales that we never imagined when we were younger. We talked chemo and radiation, hashed over fatigue and weepiness — shared our unexpected stories.
In his fine memoir about having an incurable prostate cancer,
"Intoxicated by My Illness," Anatole Broyard writes that "stories
are antibodies against illness and pain." And what Chris, Dave
and I did that night was manufacture antibodies.
In telling our cancer stories, by refusing to be silent, by
declining to hide behind stoicism, we take ownership of them,
maybe even have a chance to understand them. They're our
stories, and we need to insist on that fact. We shouldn't cede
them to grieving family members, mystified friends or
hard-pressed doctors and nurses.
One of my goals that night was to greet Chris in deep friendship, pay full attention to her and to listen hard. Knowing that she was a fellow traveler a ways behind me on this journey, I also tried to give her the gift of my stories, of my presence without any of the condescension that cancer patients often have to put up with. And so we talked.
Chris was caught between tears and laughter when she said how one of her friends told her that chemotherapy didn't suit her, because she thought that Chris didn't quite have the right face to successfully pull off having no hair.
And I was almost moved to tears myself — being even more open to tears has been one of the permanent side effects of my being treated for cancer — by the sheer joy that Chris and Dave took in being with their granddaughter, Gwenny.
I nodded in agreement when I got this e-mail from Chris during her radiation treatment.
"This may sound stupid," she wrote, "but I didn't realize that I'd actually feel something after it was done each day. Maybe I'm just imagining the flesh that is melting inside of me." (We also discuss moisturizer, and agree that Aquaphor ointment is a godsend for radiation patients and their tender skin.)
But nothing sounds stupid when it comes from a cancer patient. My advice, Chris? Say whatever you want to whomever you want. There are no awards for biting your tongue. And while I'm at it, here's a couple more pieces of advice:
Cry when you want, sleep when you want, eat what you want, don't even think about going back to work yet, and hug your husband, daughters and granddaughter as often as you can.
As for your hair, your friend is wrong. Chris, you burn with the fierce beauty and wisdom that only come from facing the fires of cancer.