I have toyed with the idea of this blog post for weeks now, primarily because by its very nature, it is going to be honest. Really honest. And one thing that I have learned is that while people may profess to want to hear the truth, but they would prefer it sugar coated, with sprinkles and a cherry on top.
But I think sometimes, it is important to be truthful, to occasionally deal in reality. It is how we grow and learn. And so I offer this to be useful. Informative, even. Truly.
When you are handed a cancer diagnosis, you are in shock. Real shock. Your mind goes through hundreds of scenarios, as you examine the “what ifs” of your future. It is scary, terrifying, in fact, and the world spins out of control as you struggle to breathe. But that doesn’t last for long. It can’t if you intend to survive. So you begin to settle into your new normal and prepare to fight for your life.
Soon, you begin to realize that it often makes people uncomfortable to be with you. They wonder when their turn will come, when the invitation to dance with the grim reaper will arrive at their doorstep. And because you don’t want them to feel that discomfort, to be uneasy in your presence, you strap on the armor, learn to be brave. You strive to stand tall as you battle this plague of the modern world. And as a result, they marvel at how strong you are as you force a smile through disappointing lab results, painful surgeries, and never-ending treatments that often make you feel worse than the actual malignancy.
But if the truth be told, the reality of living with cancer is different from this image. So different.
Oh, sure, you willingly endure whatever is prescribed because you don’t want to die. But it is all a crapshoot, a roll of the dice. And winning simply means you get to live a few more months, or if you are really lucky, years. But when time is a precious gift, that feels like an eternity. And you aim for the prize.
I think I am pretty safe in saying that If somebody you love has cancer, they not going to tell you what they are thinking or feeling. They aren’t going to reveal the chink in the wall of courage they have constructed. No, they will keep their vulnerabilities a secret. Instead, they will smile and tell you that all is well, having mastered the performance of being strong.
Why? They do it for you. It is all they can truly give you right now. And they want you to feel better even when they can’t.
But I promised that this post would be honest. So I am going to share what somebody with cancer is really thinking. Maybe it will help both of us.
1. Don’t tell me to call you if I need anything. I won’t. Please reach out to me occasionally just to let me know you care. Set up a date to come by for a visit. Ask to take me to lunch or to a nearby park. I don’t get out much, and desperately miss the human contact. And while I know that you have offered to do anything I needed, I am not going to ask. I simply won’t. It is difficult to be vulnerable, to depend on others to do what I used to do so easily for myself. It makes me feel weak. And I am afraid that if I do gather the courage to reach out, you won’t follow through, which will be disheartening. But if you show up at my door with flowers to plant in my garden or a container of chocolate chip cookies you just baked, It will bring me some joy, and I won’t forget your kindness.
2. Please don’t tell me that I’ll be fine. That is, of course, my greatest wish, but I have a chronic life-threatening illness for which there is no cure. I can’t trivialize it. I remain hopeful, but I never underestimate the enemy that I am up against, and I am not in denial. Even though cancer and its treatments can sometimes influence my outlook, I still have normal moods and feelings in response to life events. If I’m angry or upset, accept that something triggered it and don’t write it off as the disease or discount my feelings. I need to experience and express real emotions. Keeping things inside isn’t good for me. But hey, I do love it when you tell me that I seem to be doing well. I am trying, and it helps if you notice.
3. Ask me “what’s up” rather than “how do you feel.” “How are you?” is a particularly loaded question since I never know how to answer it. To reply “fine” would be a lie, but I honestly don’t need to talk about my illness all of the time. I know that you get tired of it, too, and I suspect it might be why you are avoiding me. I promise, I can still talk about life. And I enjoy laughing and talking about what we used to do. I know what is going on in the world and have opinions. Engage me. I need that.
4. Help me to hold onto a little bit of normalcy. I know that the cancer has altered my appearance. I can’t diet and exercise my way out of the steroid weight gain. I can’t will myself to grow hair. The worry is etched in my face as new wrinkles appear. And yes, I am pale because my blood isn’t normal after the chemo assault. I want to look as I once did when I was healthy, and it breaks my heart that I can’t. So tell me if I look good. Yes, I still have a bit of vanity remaining. Come over and polish my nails that have been discolored by the drugs. Go wig shopping with me. Help me find a pair of jeans that disguise the way my body has changed. I am still a woman. I am still me.
5. Forgive me. There will be times when the illness and its treatment make me “not myself.” Chemo brain is real, and I am on some powerful medication which might alter me a bit, make me seem less like the person you used to know. I may be forgetful, abrupt or hurtful. I may become overly sensitive. None of this is deliberate. Please don’t take it personally, and please forgive me. It is the greatest gift you can give me.
6. Please Listen. I promise that I’m doing my very best to be brave and strong, but I have moments when I need to fall apart. I need to talk about my disappointments, what has made me sad. You don’t need to fix it because, quite frankly, you can’t, but I am open to what you have to offer and will listen to you as well. If I trust you enough to fall into your arms and cry, then, just let me. It is good medicine, releasing much of the stress and pressure for me. It helps more than you can imagine. But don’t be reluctant to talk to me about what you feel as well. I don’t need for you to pretend to be brave, too. It only creates a false relationship between us.
7. Stay connected with me, even if it through something as silly as social media. It is nice to hear from you, whether email or snail mail or text. If you comment on a Facebook post, send me a Snapchat, or read my blog, you encourage me and let me know that I am alone. I like seeing your silly dog pics and hearing what is happening with you, too. And even if you get tired of hearing about my illness, I do appreciate your embracing the now with me. Thanks for not running away. Abandonment is as painful as the disease.
8.Give me something to anticipate. We take the future for granted when we are well, but mine is uncertain. I can only focus on one day at a time because now is all I am guaranteed. But I need dreams to think about in the quiet moments. Don’t be afraid to make plans with me, even if they are short term. Tell me about trips that we will take, adventures that we will share. There is a place that lives in my mind, I call it “The Land of Someday.” So let me feel that one day life will be as it once was, maybe even better. I need something to live for.
9.Please pray for me. I am always touched when I am told that somebody prays for me. And yes, it would be lovely if God, in His infinite wisdom gave man a cure for this dreaded disease. But I know might not happen. Instead, pray for my peace of mind, that my body is free of pain. Pray that I am able to accept whatever my future holds and that I live the remainder of my life in joy. Your prayers mean the world to me. They give me strength.
10. Take nothing for granted. Enjoy the life you have right now. Take time to dance in the rain, play with the dog, and feel the wind on your face. Say “I love you.” Count every blessing. Twice. Take care of yourself; guard your health. Eat right and avoid stress. I want for you to live a long and happy life. It is my greatest wish for you. Marvel at this amazing world God created, the beauty of each season. Stop and smell the roses, even if they look like petunias.
I prefaced this by promising to be honest, so let me add one final thought. I am so very grateful to those of you who have been there for me, have been supportive and kind and thoughtful. Some of you could have created this list for me as you have anticipated my unspoken needs. You have no idea what your caring and compassion have meant to me, how healing it has been. And yes, you can tell me how strong I am, even when I am at my weakest, because I know it to be true.
We are all loved into this world. All that any of us can ever hope for is to be loved out.