It’s Just a Word

A couple weeks ago, I had the next in my series of 3-month check-ups since the end of chemotherapy last December.  Except for a lingering abnormality in the size of some red blood cells, which I’m told takes awhile to resolve, everything looks good and I am feeling well. My energy has returned to normal, and I’ve returned to teaching and other professional work. As I gain distance from treatment, it’s easier to not think about cancer, though I’m not sure I will (or should) ever forget about it.

But out here on the part of the journey called survivorship, I’m trying to figure out the steps along the way.

One of those steps is figuring out what to do to maintain good health. After the flurry of treatment schedules, the relative freedom of the post-treatment period can leave you feeling like you’re not doing anything to combat the disease. In theory, the cancer is gone, so what then is left to do?

We Americans like the idea that we’re taking action. Whenever a challenge appears, inevitably someone shouts, “DO something!” So, after cancer, some take up the work of promoting awareness, others get involved in advocacy for funding, and we can all buy something with a pink ribbon on it.

So what am I doing? Well, I’m writing this blog and I continue to explore alternative therapies and work with the naturopath.  There’s nothing like a yoga class and a handful of dietary supplements in the morning to give you the feeling that you’re doing something.

Another step in survivorship is figuring out what to answer when people ask what they should say to someone else they know who has cancer.

Last month, it was a neighbor who asked. Last week, it was a friend at work. The friend at work told me about his sister’s death from cancer, in greater detail than I would have preferred, including his observation that cancer allowed his sister to gain the attention she never received in life. Cancer takes many roles in the lives of people and their families, but this is not a role it should assume.

The man then told me about a friend of his, a fishing buddy, who had just been diagnosed with lymphoma. His anguish over his friend’s situation was clear as he described how he and his buddy would rise at 5 a.m. to go fishing at the lake. Along with his friend, he was struggling with the diagnosis and didn’t know what to do.

According to recent projections from the World Health Organization, cancer may soon become the primary cause of death across the globe. It’s not hard to see that cancer will likely touch all our lives.  And so, what  DO you say to someone who has cancer?

I can’t speak for every cancer patient, but I can  tell you this.

No one wants to pass through that doorway to the room marked Cancer. Society still views cancer as an instant death sentence, but that’s not an accurate picture of what’s true. But my experience was not nearly the horrifying series of events I’d imagined, and what I discovered along the way was  a whole lot of life, lived in a new way, and only the same shadow of death we all discover on our own journeys.

Perhaps I’m a lucky one, but I know I’m not alone. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are almost 12 million — 12 MILLION — cancer survivors in the U.S.

And I can also tell you this:  Don’t call it “The Big C“ or “The C Word.”  Call it by its name, the same way you name any other illness: diabetes, hemophilia, asthma, whatever. If you hide from the name, you can’t help your friend find the courage to face it.  As the cross-stitch sampler on the desk at the infusion center states, Cancer is a word, not a sentence.  If you can say its name, you can help your friend stare it in the eye and say, “I see you, but you will not have me.”

Now, what do you DO for someone you know who has cancer? You offer them the best you’ve got to help them affirm life. If it’s a simple nod of recognition to a fellow bald-headed chemo patient at the gas station, then nod. If it’s an offer of help while they go through treatment, offer the help they need, which is not necessarily the help you think they need.  If it’s diverting their attention to other things, then tell them a grand story. If it’s a story about someone else with cancer, make it a hopeful one.

My most startling discovery was that, even in my fear of death, life continued. Do what you can to help them affirm life. And if fishing it is, well then, get out that tackle box and head to the lake.