A few years before my own breast cancer diagnosis in July 2009, I received the opportunity to meet another woman fighting for her life against the disease. Carol and I were in the same local YMCA yoga class, and I had been encouraged to introduce myself to her. But I had also been told that Carol’s most recent news was not hopeful, and that her oncologist had suggested yoga as a way to relieve some of her stress.
First opportunity I introduced myself to Carol. But I deliberately did not make an effort to call her later, or become friends with her at all. I remember distinctly that I was afraid. Not of Carol, a 30-something African-American married woman without children, but of her journey. Her husband was a truck driver, and so her co-workers had stepped up to help her in her battle. Carol was also an orphan who had found her mother only after her diagnosis prompted her to locate her maternal family. The same family, she would learn, that had passed along genetic breast cancer.
Her newly discovered sickly mother came to live with Carol after they met, which was of course, also after Carol’s diagnosis. When my opportunity came along to meet her, she was fighting off breast cancer, and caring for the ailing mother that had abandoned her as a child.
I thought long and hard about it, and decided not to attempt to make friends. My own mother died suddenly when I was 15 years old, and so I could empathize with her wish to bring her lost mother in to live with her. But I thought her mother selfish because she was not there to help her daughter survive, but to lean on her daughter for her own survival. The two of them alone in the house most of the time, I imagined a complicated, emotionally charged environment that I didn’t want to expose to my own sensitive emotions about mother/daughter relationships.
I also did not want to make friends with someone whose doctor had told her she would not make it, that the cancer would kill her. I didn’t even know Carol, except for what I had heard about her second-hand, and I decided that I didn’t want to get to know her. After all, I reasoned, she had plenty of help. Her co-workers were actively taking care of her – feeding her, staying over with her, and escorting her to medical appointments. I didn’t want to expose myself to the pain of losing another loved one. I might have come to a different conclusion had I thought she was help-less.
When I received my own diagnosis, and began my own survival journey, like Carol, I looked to my family, friends, and even my co-workers for help. If no more than to listen to my sad tales about surgery, chemotherapy, etc., etc., I needed everyone who was willing to hold my hand, and to hold me up during what continues to be a hard journey.
I was surprised by the responses my cries for help received. People I didn’t expect to do much more than pat my shoulder and wish me the best were amazingly helpful and caring. Friends that donated furniture so that I would be more comfortable, visited with personal gifts in hand, loaned and gave us money that kept us afloat while I missed work, mailed gifts long distance, listened patiently over the phone while I sobbed and felt justifyably sorry for myself – prayed for me. Family that took time out of their busy schedules, and funds out of already tight budgets to come and see about me in person.
Relationships are very much like row boats, two people to a boat. During good times, the boat you share with a friend moves smoothly down the river with no one necessarily paying attention to who is, or is not, rowing the boat. But if – after one of the two people becomes unable to do her or his share of the rowing – the boat stops mid-stream, than we know who was doing most of the work in that relationship.
I was also surprised by the many “extended family” that were stunningly silent. No calls. No cards. No emails. No voice mails. No nothing. It felt as if these silent people had already abandoned the row boat and me having written me off as dead. Over all but the memorial service.
I considered the row boat analogy extremely profound, and it served as the theory upon which I analyzed many of my “family relationships” post-breast cancer. Breast cancer taught me as well that we are each destined to at least three families per our short lifetimes: The one we were born into, and the one we were raised by – oftentimes, but not always, the same two families. Sometimes not. And third, the family, or families we ourselves create as adults. The family I was born into, and raised by had pretty much served its purpose in my life, as it sometimes does for so many people these days. Because in so-called family relationship after another, the boat stopped during my cancer treatment, indicating to me that I had been the one doing most of the rowing, the realization determining, in my mind, the end of the relationship.
I don’t regret those decisions either. For a woman like me can arise on any given morning, and receive news before she again lays her head down that completely radicalizes her life. Such a “normal,” so-so life can rage out of her control on the spin of a dime, the flip of a Joker, or the slip of the tongue. I have decided that if my relationship with you, whoever you happen to be, costs me too much in emotional hardship, it’s just not worth trying to maintain. Life is too short to spend it obsessed about one-sided row boats.
However, the Bible teaches that “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” and I have learned much about crises of all sorts, and the individual manner in which all of us respond to them. I am more understanding and forgiving of the people who could not, for whatever reason, allow themselves to come too close to me and my suffering. I have forgiven myself. As I had my reasons for not wanting to involve myself too intimately with Carol, likewise there were those in my life who may have felt something similar.
“There. but for the grace of God, go I.”
Breast cancer – a diagnosis of cancer of any sort – is a damn well scary proposition. Fighting back cancer is a war of countless battles, smeared with blood and bodily fluids, punctuated by normally secretive bodily functions, throbbing with seemingly ceaseless pain, paranoia lurking in the nighttime shadows. The Sprit of Death chasing you in your day and night dreams. Fighting cancer back takes an willingness to rise again after every setback. It takes remembering all that is good and of sound mind in your world, and in the world, while the horror of cancer treatment competes for your attention.
During active treatment, I often dreamed of cancer as collossal in size and red in color. I still dream of it, and other things and people, chasing me as I look desparately back and across shoulders seared by Death’s hot breath. Fighting back takes an endless, if not unwavering, faith in the Spirit that wakes us in the morning, and protects us, even in our nightmares.
I am still stumbling emotionally. While I have forgiven myself and them, I have not forgotten my response to Carol, or theirs to me. I have not forgotten how frightened Carol’s situation made me feel, or how uninvolved with her I wanted to remain. I was not strong enough to fight shoulder to shoulder, to lock arms with Carol who by all accounts fought brave, courageous battles in a war that she eventually lost.
Nor have I forgotten how the very people I thought would make themselves available to me after my diagnosis, where unavailable. I was not a friend to Carol. Nor was I a spiritual warrior in her defense. I was unable to set aside my own wonderings so that I could help another face her own very real, and tangible reasons to be afraid. My fear at the time was based on “what ifs,” while Carol’s fear was rooted in “what now?”
Now it’s my turn to ask “what now?” Why did cancer happen to me? Where do I go from here? How wlll I manage a peaceful, if not pain-free, life? When, if ever, will I feel normal again? What is normal? Will I remain cancer-free? If so, what will I do with the life that remains? If I don’t, what then?
So many questions. So few answers.