Listening and small gestures can make a difference when someone you know is dealing with cancer.
Diana M. Martin has been an adjunct professor in The Writing and Reading Center at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, for over 15 years. She has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction and has published articles in the areas of parenting, health and cultural arts. When her husband lost his battle with cancer of unknown primary, later identified as bile duct cancer, she became the sole caregiver for their adult son, Alex, who is autistic.
Recently, a friend's husband learned that he had a suspect nodule on his liver. Already a patient with cancer, he had been doing well on an experimental drug that had seemed to put his cancer in remission for almost a year.
This friend's husband was battling cancer at the same time my husband was. We had met at a cancer support meeting for spouses and remained close even after my husband, Dan, died in 2015. I know it was hard for her to see Dan's life end while her husband was doing well in treatment.
Although she knew we were in different stages of coping with the emotions that cancer inevitably brings, I never felt her step away from me. At times, she must have felt alienated when, one by one, each of our husbands passed away, and a spouse exited then the group. I really don't know what she felt except that she told me once that she still needed my support.
And I needed hers. I imagine I would have felt like I was in a room all by myself, knowing that one day I might be in that other room: The one where the bereavement support group was held.
When I had moved to the other room, I felt as if I were following a map in which the journey was just as brutal as the destination. I had not wanted to be in that other room until I had to be. And then I was there, and she was not.
I was jealous. It was like her husband had won the survivor lottery. But I was also grateful, because I loved her and wished only the best for her husband. I rejoiced every time a scan came back clean. The juxtaposition of jealousy and gratitude made me feel disjointed. No matter how much resentment I felt about Dan's death, discussing the remarkable results of her husband's scans were worth it because I could see that cancer wasn't invincible. Then, the call came in that made me pause.
I had just gotten to the halfway point of the book, “There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love,” by Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., and Emily McDowell. Both authors have experienced pain: Crowe is a breast cancer survivor and McDowell's mother committed suicide. I suffered what they referred to as “analysis paralysis” or the inability to think how to connect because of my own insecurities and experiences.
I knew I could empathize with her. After all, I was the expert on bad scans and what they meant. But I chose not to. This book reminded me that I had to listen and shut up. This was hard. Excruciatingly hard. All I permitted myself to say was, “I'm sorry and I love you.” Then I called a friend and told him everything I wanted to say to her — to get it out of my system. Things like: “It's just one nodule. He'll be fine” or “Don't get upset until you get the MRI results.”
Then I made a big mistake. It had been raining nonstop for days, and everyone I knew was sick of it — especially me. My friends were saying that they couldn't walk their dogs because the dogs refused to get their paws wet. I remembered that my friend had a cocker spaniel she and her husband loved. So, I googled “dogs in raincoats,” and came across a YouTube Video of a dachshund named Crusoe whose owner had dressed him in a raincoat with an umbrella.
The pup did this little dance to music while he stepped in puddles. I couldn't stop laughing. I also found some dogs modeling rain boots online. I attached the video and texted the links to my friend and said that I would buy this for her dog. I got a curt reply back, "Thanks, Diana. Not feeling like laughing at all but I appreciate your support."
With all I had been through was this the best I could come up with? Maybe I should have gone over to her house, but when I asked if she wanted company she said that she just wanted to eat dinner with her husband. Maybe I should have brought over dinner? Or just let it go. I had really screwed up the timing.
But then the next morning I got a phone call. It was her and she thanked me. She said it made her laugh. We looked at the video again and could see that the umbrella was attached to the raincoat and that the dog was not actually holding it in his paw. “There is also a video of Crusoe playing golf with another dog,” I said. “I have to look that one up,” she replied. She and I also play golf on occasion, and I owe my interest in this newest hobby to her.
I think I sent the video because I remembered how it felt to be distracted from cancer, even for a moment, by laughter. People who knew me well enough to know what I would find funny would send me these silly cartoons. I would share them with my husband.
Now a disclaimer: Not everyone may think this is a good idea. After all, cancer is serious business. And so is life. But I had to admit, that video was funny. What I remember most about the people who reached out to me is that they made an effort. Friends I didn't know were that funny sent me things that made me laugh during the most unlaughable times. I learned that it’s worth taking the risk to be our authentic selves to each other. That may even lead to greater healing.