When Someone in Your Life Has Cancer

 

Breaking-Bad-Hair-Art

I was once tricked into watching the first season of ‘Breaking Bad’. It’s a great show and I love that the driving force behind Bryan Cranston’s transformation from science teacher to science teacher/meth dealer is his need for cancer treatment money. I love it when money problems work their way into the plot or become key to a character’s motivations. I don’t mean I enjoy financial problems fiction like ‘Julia’ (starring Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton) or ‘We’re the Millers’, but I enjoy a story more if it doesn’t conveniently ignore the reality that about 80% of the time, people make life-altering decisions based on how much money they have or don’t have. Think gone girl Amy Dunne when she realized she has no more cash with which to torment her victim, Nick Dunne.

I couldn’t watch the entire first season of ‘Breaking Bad’ but, mightily, I tried and succeeded. I don’t remember much of the show except for how it made me feel. It took me back to a time when my mother was being destroyed by cancer, and it’s not because she resembled Academy Award nominee Bryan Cranston; she looked like Academy Award winner Julianne Moore when she was healthy, but because the reddish piss and the hair loss were painful to watch. Every time I write about my mother’s cancer and death, and speak seemingly so dryly of it, it’s as if I’m so detached from that scarring life event and as if I’m about to send it to an essay-writing contest which, I don’t know why, isn’t something I would want my mother-cancer essays to sound like. The truth is that I will never be un-detached from it and going off on tangents like this is why I would never ever win essay-writing contests that I would never ever join.

I found myself working for a cancer clinic company, which required me to read about cancer and immerse myself in that disease’s world. I’m not just being dramatic when I say ‘I found myself working for a cancer clinic company’ because truly, I did not know that when I hit ‘send’ on that application button, I would have to immerse myself in cancer reading material. In general, responsible people shouldn’t be finding themselves working for clinics that they didn’t know would necessitate cancer readings. It’s just insane.

There is but a tiny connection between my brief stint as cancer content manager and finding out that someone I love has cancer. I guess the connection I’m trying to make is that… cancer is forever? That it will haunt you (me) in ways that we can never anticipate. I thought I wouldn’t have to think about cancer again, but it apparently is not through with me. Here are some things that I’ve realized.

(They’re all for ‘you’ because that’s what I want.)

You make the cancer about you.

By thinking about what could happen to you when someone in your life is diagnosed with cancer. One of my dearest friends was diagnosed with a type of laryngeal cancer and somehow, or not surprisingly, I found ways to direct discussion about what it could mean to me, who is, for 31 years now, has never wavered in making itself the unrivalled center of my attention in any event that has ever occurred.

‘How about me? Am I healthy?’ ‘Have I said enough affectionate things to her today?’ ‘How is she for money?’ ‘If it had been me, would I be able to handle it as bravely as she does?’ are some of the thoughts you may have. Someone in your life finds out he has cancer and you think about your own health is perhaps not the best way to be. I think it’s sick. I also think it’s the kind of impulse that is inescapable.

You develop a protective brotherly or maternal instinct previously absent.

There’s a reason why some people are single or childless. That reason often has to do with a person’s inability to care for anyone but themselves. What grows is not a parental instinct but more like a strange desire to punch the face of those who dare disrupt the ill person’s aura. You are not always capable of doing something about this but you develop the instinct anyway and you are helpless against this. Don’t fight it.

You see the rationale behind people’s habit of posting inspirational quotes superimposed on pictures of waterfalls.

Not until you are faced with the sickly face of the person whose problem you didn’t previously know existed will you realize how valuable, how encouraging to the spirit a life-affirming quote as plain as ‘Life is short’ is to the person who posts such things.

I’ve never read a waterfalls-backdropped quote and thought, ‘Hmm, what a wonderful thing to post on Facebook,’ or ‘Hmm, thank you Facebook friend, I really needed to know today that I’m blessed beyond my wild imaginings,’ until recently. I’m often the kind of social media participant who scrolls down fast to get to the Onion and Gawker posts, then scroll further down to find a Guardian or New Yorker literature essay that I would share a link of as part of an ongoing and hopefully not a lifetime effort of making myself seem smarter than I really am, as reinforced by the supposedly non-stupid things I occasionally share. The truth is I’m not above appreciating these quotes; I just don’t often acknowledge the little ways in which they help some people’s spirits.

You turn into a cancer expert.

Sometimes, you even become an alternative cancer treatment expert. Precious health tips such as ‘Don’t eat sugar’ or ‘Eat vegetables’ become staples in the list of things you occasionally tell that someone in your life who has cancer.

You give such pieces of advice like parents who scold their 9-year old children maybe in an attempt to be funny and frivolous. This is fine, well intentioned, and makes you feel good about yourself, but it fails to consider that the reason why sick people eat whatever they want is because they have lost the ability to taste food. ‘Eat kale chips and tofu salad’ isn’t something a person whose tongue is razed with chemo meds wants to hear.

You have to stop whining.

Specifically, you stop lamenting your lack of reading time or, say, the woeful state of your professional career. It’s tricky because you feel like your problems are valid and deserve great, undivided attention, but is not having a stable job really that life-threatening in the grander scheme of things? Yes, of course, especially if you’re feeding babies, parents, or anyone else that isn’t you.

When someone you care for has cancer, all of your serious problems suddenly seem so trivial, stupid and basic. Especially, iTunes kinds of problems. People who are way ahead of their peers in gauging the level of basicness of some problems don’t need for someone in their life to be struck with cancer to realize that some problems aren’t worth cultivating drama for. Then of course there are those who do. Uncertainty about your future shouldn’t be thrown away, but when the wallowing gets to be too much that it consumes your entire being for days, an angel whispers a gentle reminder about how being a whiny bitch isn’t the best way to be. That whispering angel may be using strong language (eg, ‘whiny bitch’) but it does so gently because it realizes that your problems are yours to own and handle and they are still real. Angels are considerate and in-the-know. Angels are real.

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