I truly believe that there is nothing worse than hearing someone you love has cancer, except perhaps hearing that you yourself have cancer. Who knows which is worse unless you are unfortunate to have both things occur.
I do know that hearing my mom had cancer hurt me more than learning that my father was dying. And it’s not simply because my relationship with my father was complicated. I’ve dealt with death and dying before. Besides, he had dementia and anyone who has had a family member with dementia knows that they come and go like ebbs and tides until they finally go and never come back.
I was prepared for my father’s death, well as prepared for death as you can be.
I don’t care what some people say, death is not a natural thing. If it were, we as the human race would have found some way to make it easy so that we could be as indifferent to it as we are a cloudy day. Besides Jesus wept when he heard that his friend Lazarus had died, so if there is any proof that death was not part of the original plan for us, then there it is. Jesus wept knowing he could Lazarus back. I’m sure all sorts of religious scholars have all sorts of reasoning about why this occurred, but to me it signifies that there is no easy way to let someone go, even if you had all the power in the universe, letting go hurts.
Hearing that my mom had cancer suddenly propelled me to my Lazarus moment, except that I am powerless. I cannot make cancer vanish with a word or a sweep of my hand. I can only wait, watch and hope that the doctors are right and the treatments are effective.
I am not alone in this of course. Every time I take my mom to an oncology appointment, I see the faces of my comrades in arms. Some are too weak or depressed to respond or smile back at me, but we are comrades nonetheless. We can recognize that in ourselves, even as we sit silently in the waiting room. Others are more jovial and welcoming. I don’t see how they stay that up-and-positive, even as I fight to be just like them.
There is the one o’clock man we see every day in the radiation waiting room. Mom has the 1:30 appointment. He just seems like the happiest guy. I don’t know his name, but I don’t need to. We have formed a bond of mutual caring that is beyond names. Once, he was having difficulty reaching his cubby to get his clothes. He had a bag of some sort that he had to wear as part of his cancer treatment and needed me to help him get his clothes of his cubby. Then there he was in his underwear and there I was, not even knowing his name and it was OK. This may seem like nothing to you, but I am childhood sexual abuse survivor, so it has a lot of significance to me. For a lot of my life I have been scared of all men because of what happened to me. I can’t tell you how many times I was abused or by how many men—because after a while it just seemed like every man or boy I came into contact with was out to get me. There were times during my childhood when I felt like I was wearing a sign because seriously it was my babysitter’s son, another babysitter’s border, boys at school, my pediatrician and then blurs of unnatural touch and tastes that finally culminate with my own father. So for me to be OK with helping a man in his underwear is huge to me. But see, we’re more than man and woman, abuse survivor and whatever kind of survivor he may be from whatever life experience he has now. We are cancer patient and caregiver and it’s OK.
This is what I’ve seen repeatedly throughout this experience. There is solidarity amongst those of us in the cancer and cancer caregiving community. We are fighting the same battle against cancer while struggling to build and maintain some type of normality to each of our situations. We see each other in those waiting rooms that we get to know each other on some level that is deeper than race, religion, personal history or anything else. We are as God sees us; human at the very core of our humanity, all members of the same family; dysfunctional, yet still somehow able to see beyond that dysfunction and all the things we allow to separate us from each other and simply be OK.
These are other people who have heard those same words and know what it’s like to feel slammed back and forth by info-dumps of information about side effects and probabilities, along with hours spent in waiting rooms during surgeries and treatments. Cancer has come into their lives as a defiant and unwelcome guest, just like it has come into yours. No one else can possibly know what it’s like unless they experience it themselves. So you find yourself becoming close to a bunch of strangers. You may have been an introvert all of your life, reserved or like me a survivor of one of life’s many hard knocks and suddenly there you are chatting with these folks as if they were long time friends. There is a shared respect and camaraderie that exists because you all have been or are going through hell or you are watching someone you love go through hell. We discuss the weather, treatments, we work on one of the puzzles that is always available to help pass the time or we watch TV. It doesn’t matter, because we’re sharing the same experience and we’re fighting and winning and in some cases losing, the toughest battle of our lives.
This is something profound that I have learned in the many months I have been a caregiver. I started this experience feeling very much alone. I had people in my life that weren’t understanding or caring about my situation and I had those who backed away. I do not feel alone at all now, and I know my mother doesn’t feel like that either.
We are part of a community that is there to help lift us up when we are down, laugh at jokes that only another cancer patient or caregiver would find funny, explain information to us that we’ve already heard fifty times or sit silently beside us when we are too weak to do anything else. We are not alone, and that is a powerful and wonderful thing to know, because it gives us hope and it gives us support, which we pass on one to the other in solidarity and strength.