I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of enlisting your family and friends to assist you in your battle with cancer. Had it not been for the critical choices that must be made shortly after a cancer diagnosis, as well as, the necessity of making peace with death, Embracing Your Family and Friends would have been chapter one. It’s just so essential on so many levels. I can tell you firsthand that reaching out to my family and friends was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life.
When I heard those words, “You have cancer,” a shock wave of fear coursed through my body. The most terrifyingly horrible thoughts became vivid visions in my mind’s eye. One that I remember replayed over and over again in my head whenever I was alone with my thoughts. In my vision, I’m lying motionless on a bed in a dimly lit room, obviously near death. A faceless, emotionless hospice worker sits silently in a chair reading; she looks up from her book as my labored breathing halts momentarily. With my ragged breathing returning to normal, her eyes return to the words on the page. I’m like an observer to my own death, outside my body, taking in the entire scene from somewhere near the ceiling. I look around the room and notice that other than the hospice worker, the room is conspicuously empty. These are the kind of visions that raced through my mind, completely consuming my consciousness for weeks following my diagnosis. Much like the scene with Cain, Adam and Eve described earlier, taking one look at that image I said to myself, “Now that’s not cool. Don’t think I want to do that.”
While it’s quite possible I will end up in a situation very much like my early nightmare -sickly, emaciated and dying – there will be one major difference, I will not be alone. Oh, I may take my last breath in an empty room, but I will be surrounded by the love and caring of so many people. When I pressed the, “send,” button on my computer screen, that evening of December 19, 2009, I was making certain that all of my family and friends would be along for this wild and exhilarating ride! Since that day, I’ve received many hundreds, perhaps thousands of responses to my somewhat irregular emails. Everyone has had my back through all of the ups and downs of this fantastic journey and I truly appreciate their love and encouragement. Their many kind words have filled me with confidence and determination for which I will be eternally grateful.
Looking at the huge outpouring of love that has come my way and the many close friends I’ve made since I embraced those around me, it’s obvious that the decision I made was the right one. I believe that it can be the right one for you as well, regardless of your circumstances. Even if you’ve been estranged from family or a formerly close friend, the knowledge of your illness may have an amazing effect on those relationships. You might as well give it a go because you have nothing to lose by doing just that.
In the years following my diagnosis, faded friendships and relationships thought to be long over, have been resurrected by news of my plight. One of several former close friends who embraced me when she found out about my cancer is Terry. She and I attended the same high school, stayed close after graduation, and even worked together for several years. At some point we had a falling out and for reasons I cannot remember; we had not shared a word between us for more than twenty years. When she found out about my illness and that I was at Stanford Hospital undergoing a bone marrow transplant she sent me an email, which I received on November 29, 2013, letting me know that she and her partner Kate were sending their best wishes to me. With Terry’s permission, I share that slightly altered email with you below.
Terry Fitzpatrick here; its Cleary now but I thought Fitzpatrick would ring a bell. Carol and Rob may have told you that Kate and I stopped by to see them recently. It felt just like old times. They said that you are bravely and steadfastly battling cancer. We think of you every day and send good energy and prayers. I’d love to call and chat if you’re up for it.
Holding the vision of a world shaped by justice and empowered by peace, Terry.
Since she had the courage to send me that email, Terry and I have rekindled our long dormant relationship, becoming closer and closer as time goes by. What were the chances that she and I would have reconciled or ever spoken to each other had she not heard of my trouble? She was motivated to contact me simply because she cared. No doubt the odds of our ever reconnecting were very slim, yet here we are today, communicating with one another on a regular basis and ending each correspondence with the word, “love.” Later in this chapter I’ll share with you another story of a relationship, long lost, that was renewed because of my illness. It seems logical to conclude, that if I’ve been so warmly embraced by those who love me, even those I haven’t talked to in years, your reaching out will have very similar results. Give it a chance.
It’s your call to make. Unless you hold your arms wide open, literally and figuratively, to embrace your family and your friends, there’s a good chance they’ll feel that you’re shutting them out, and perhaps, subconsciously, you are. They may believe you want your solitude, don’t want them, or don’t need them around simply because you haven’t invited them to join you. Perhaps your mind is telling you that the last thing you want to be is a burden, but in my estimation this is a big mistake.
In her wonderful and thoughtful book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, author Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., tells the story of a physically active woman stricken with cancer in a chapter entitled, Finding Mr. Right. I reprint a portion of that brief story here to prove my point.
“One of my former clients is a psychologist and a fine athlete who ran every morning in a park near her home. She often met a colleague there, a well-known psychiatrist. Without any formal arrangement, they had run together for many years. After she was diagnosed with cancer, somehow her running companion was never there. My client is a strong and determined woman and despite a difficult course of surgery and chemotherapy, she continued to run every day. After a few months of running alone, she called the psychiatrist’s office, but he never returned her call.
“About a year after the completion of her chemotherapy she took a different path one morning and saw the psychiatrist running up ahead. Being twenty years younger she overtook him easily. As they ran side by side, she told her old running companion that it had hurt when he had not called back. The professional community they both belonged to was small and almost everyone had known about her cancer. Surely he had heard. The psychiatrist’s answered had shocked her. He had replied, ‘I’m sorry, I simply did not know the right thing to say’.
I asked her what she would have wanted to hear. She smiled sadly. “Oh, something like, ‘I heard it’s been a hard year. How are you doing?’ Some simple human thing like that.”
Even the most well-respected and educated professional in the mental health field can be struck dumb if he’s not invited into the world of the cancer sufferer. Obviously, he had learned of his colleague’s illness from someone other than the woman herself. Perhaps this unintentional slight had shattered the psychiatrist’s image of their relationship beyond his capacity to recover. His response was to find a new running path and avoid this longtime jogging partner.
Don’t let this be your story. Everyone needs to know and you need to do the telling.
Other Important Reasons For Your Invitation
As your journey continues you’re going to want everyone in your corner. You’re going to need them in your corner for so many reasons.
- After your diagnosis, you’re going to need and want to talk to someone or perhaps many people as you deal with the near paralyzing reality of your illness.
- As you journey from Dread to Joy, it’s so important to share your discoveries and your fears with those whom you trust and love.
- After you’ve reached Joy, you’ll want very much to share with others your newfound feelings.
- We can assume that at some point, you’re going to undergo tests, procedures, treatments and possibly surgeries. Following some procedures you’ll be unable to drive so it will be imperative that you have a “go to” group to help out. Even if you have a good public transportation network, like we have here in Hawaii, it may be difficult to get to and from appointments.
- At times it’s quite possible you’ll need someone to prepare meals for you, pick up prescriptions, go to the grocery store, or any number of things.
- Your cancer treatment protocol may include surgery or stays in the hospital; if so, there is nothing like a visit from a loved one to make your day. Take it from one who has spent his fair share of time in a hospital bed, it doesn’t get much better than to have a friend just pop in to say hi!
Beyond the fact that you’re going to need their support to make it through, your family, your friends and even your casual acquaintances are naturally going to be concerned about you. They’ll wonder how you’re doing, regardless of whether or not they’ve been invited along. Much like an earthquake at the bottom of the ocean, your cancer diagnosis will severely shake your psychic sea of tranquility. And just as such an earthquake can create a tsunami that causes chaos in quiet bays, thousands of miles away from its epicenter, your cancer diagnosis can have a similar effect on everyone around you.
Starting with your immediate family and close friends, work associates, church and club members, owners and workers at businesses you frequent, virtually every person you have contact with will be affected by your cancer. Their questions and concerns may be worded in slightly different ways, but the meaning is nearly the same. You may be asking your doctor, “What’s my prognosis,” while your family, friends and associates are asking each other, “What is his or her prognosis”? Each morning as you lie in bed asking yourself, “How am I doing today?” Those same family and friends are likely wondering, “How he or she is feeling today?” And while you may wonder why you don’t get more calls, if you haven’t invited your friends and family members to call, how can you expect that they will? It’s very possible that at that exact moment a good friend is wondering if he or she should call and if they do, whether a discussion of your condition is out of bounds. You must give those friends permission to make that call and without hesitation, to say and ask whatever it is they need to say and ask. Your honest, straightforwardness will give them confidence to make that call and not be put off if you’re short with them because you’re having a difficult day.
It’s up to you to help friends and family feel comfortable with your cancer. Trust me, they are hurting for you. But at the same time, it’s you who makes the ground rules, because you have the game ball, cancer. They will be watching you closely for the cues that will tell them how to proceed. If you hide your illness from them, they will have no choice but to hide away when you need them the most, when you’re most vulnerable, when the cancer has the upper hand. Your unspoken fears will become their own. I was once on the other side of a life-threatening diagnosis, the friend side, and didn’t know which subjects were open for discussion and which were off limits. As badly as I wanted to ask Roger, my stricken friend, his thoughts and feelings about his illness and imminent death, I remained silent. For the simple reason that he had not expressed his desire to discuss these subjects, our very last conversation was shallow and empty. For years after he was gone, I found myself thinking about that last visit and the things that should have been said. In fact, right up until the moment I was diagnosed, I was convinced it was my fault that we never had that much needed conversation. A discussion, that I remain convinced to this day, we both wanted and needed. When I heard the words, “You have cancer,” I immediately recognized the truth; it had been my friend’s responsibility to tell me he was open to discussing his illness and now it was my responsibility to give that permission to those around me.
But recognition of one’s responsibility to reach out to family, friends, and associates, doesn’t make that announcement any easier. Of course, there’s the natural fear of rejection that one experiences when approaching others with a plea to rally ‘round. But, beyond that, it’s society’s refusal to discuss or even admit that aging, sickness and death are a part of normal life, that causes us to hold back from letting others know of our plight. That denial, as we addressed in the chapter entitled The Journey from Dread to Joy, has everything to do with the fear of death that permeates every level of our society. Just mention the fact you have cancer in a group of people and watch as their eyes dive into their cocktails and wine glasses; you can almost hear their you-know-what puckering up! It’s their fear of death that makes them instantly uneasy, uncomfortable. You can help them overcome that fear with the right words. This is where you become the mentor. Just a few simple words such as, “I’m happy to discuss my illness and my thoughts about my illness at any time, so feel free to ask,” should do the trick. My heart is with you.
(Check Back Next Week For The Conclusion)