I recently had someone close to me email me to say that she was going through a cancer scare. It was before Christmas and she didn’t want to tell her family until after the holidays. I immediately got on the phone to her to give her someone to talk to, to share all of the details of what was going on, to find out what was known and what was still unknown, and to just let her know that we cared.
Hearing the C word for the first time is terrifying. For me, it was when I was 32 and had my first basal cell skin cancer . I now find that incident insignificant, but at the time, the word cancer consumed me. It really made me aware of my own mortality. It wasn’t going to kill me, but IT WAS CANCER AND PEOPLE DIE OF CANCER. By the time I hit the melanoma stage, it wasn’t that scary, just another damn thing to get through (even though melanoma can kill you), and quite honestly by the time I heard that I had breast cancer, the word had lost its power over me and I just wanted to get my plan together and to get on with treating it.
There has been some discussion in my support group about whether Stage 4 cancer is worse than Stage 1. Of course it is, on one level, because it puts you that much closer to it being terminal. But it’s not worse, on another level, because of that pesky C word. If it’s the first time you’re hearing it, it has the potential to overwhelm you, whether you have Stage 1 or Stage 4. I view it as being like a balloon. The very first time you blow it up, it goes from something very small to something very large that displaces a lot of area. Each subsequent time the balloon is blown up, it may be bigger or smaller, but you’re mostly over that initial OMG feeling.
So if you know someone who’s going through any type of cancer, have some understanding of how much of their life can be displaced by this enormous balloon full of reaction. They aren’t “dwelling on it” or looking for sympathy – they are are struggling with issues of mortality and fear and uncertainty. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is to just be a sympathetic listener and let them know how very much you care.