I have cancer.
About 3,500 new Trinbagonians each year get to say those words, many with far less luck, medical opportunity or preparation than me. Most folks are gone within a year of finding out. It’s our second leading killer after heart disease; ahead of diabetes, stroke and violence.
It’s been ten weeks since my diagnosis with Stage III colon cancer. (Or a bad Stage II. The tumour was a bit of a medical curiosity.) And it’s become clear that my repeatedly elliptical writing about my illness here has merely warranted me the task of having to have the conversation over and over with people in real life.
I’ve coped largely with a sense of playfulness and a disposition that has seamlessly rolled my surgical and oncological treatments into my daily life. Despite the panic I shared two nights before my operation, my disease to date has been hardly disabling. And, yes, I’ve had both dates and gentlemen whom reading one particular column made very curious to put my fears to rest.
Living for decades with so many loved ones living with HIV has no doubt been an invaluable lesson.
I’ve come to the point, though, where steadfastly planting one foot ahead of the other isn’t going to be sustainable as a strategy. I do plan to have an outrageous cancer party for my birthday next month. But I’ve got to also start looking back and looking forward at what I want out of the life that’s left me.
My oncology nurse Liam had several sound kernels of advice as he administered my first chemo infusion. The one I’ve held on to most is that the people I need most around me are ones who’ll be irreverently witty.
When my mother died, we catalogued the condolence callers into three classic types: those with “Let me know what I can do” promises we soon discovered were performances of support, not offers; those whose first and primary engagement was medical curiosity about her cause of death; and then those who spent their time with you reliving their own unhealed bereavement, with little capacity to respond to yours.
Liam made me recall how people’s responses when they learn of my cancer often feel like condolences, and how they aren’t surprisingly different from those four. Though there are a few more, though.
There are those who’ve sent messages through people I’ve told of their shock that they weren’t. But I never hear from them personally. Perhaps I should have sent out announcement cards? Still could.
Then there are the folks who do call. Me to account. What did I hear? And I end up having to manage their own cancer grief and sense of dread, which I don’t share.
There are the questions about “prognosis” from people I don’t know well. You mean am I going to die just now? They highlight the fact that the one thing I haven’t chased in all of this is a number for how much time I have left. So I don’t have one to offer. And, of course, these folks as well as others have the million medical questions. None of which I care to answer. Except I feel I have to be the great cancer educator and slayer of oncoignorance. But a few of them do make me go: Wow, I did not think of that question.
When I talk to someone with cancer, I then think, I’m going to do “this” differently. I’m going to say: I know you have a lot to figure through. Are you able to get good information about ____ for yourself. I hope it’s something you’re thinking or asking about.
There’re the folks who insist: Call me after you meet with the radiation oncologist! Well, no; so you can ask me a million more questions and wear me out? Sorry, you’re going to have to live with your curiosity.
Then there are the broken promises: I’ll walk with you twice a week.
And the remedies. The things their old aunt did. The post on the lovely picture from my photoshoot: You don’t look good here. Are you taking the baking soda and maple syrup in the video I shared? The soursop leaves came in the mail. Recommendations for ginger. Someone even brought edibles — well, drinkables — though nausea hasn’t been a problem.
But most folks around me have been generous, attentive and sweet.
And some friends have had the very best response of all. When you don’t know what to say, saying precisely that can be magical.