A pancreatic cancer survivor explains why hearing the news that someone else has cancer makes it difficult for him to engage in the conversation, as it reminds him of his experience.
Pushing aside his menu, Tim grabbed his phone from the table and said, “It’s my wife. I need to take this.”
Hearing only half the conversation, I could tell something awful had happened.
Before hanging up he said, “Love you, sweetie! We’ll talk more later.”
My friend, who I’m calling Tim, and I had just sat down for lunch, something we have done every month for years. He is the type of friend every cancer survivor longs to have.
After getting told I had pancreatic cancer nine years ago, he walked with me through some sunless valleys, never once failing to come alongside me and offer much-needed encouragement. Always understanding, he endured my stories about my journey. While I tried not to burden him with too many details about the vulgarities of cancer, I’m sure I crossed the “too much information” line far too often.
As he sat his phone back on the table, he had a distant look in his eyes. One of those “I’m here but not here” looks.
Having been friends for years, Tim and I have always been candid with each other, holding nothing back. So I said, “What’s going on?”
Shaking his head, he said, “Our next-door neighbor Amy just got told she has stage 4 lung cancer. It has spread to her spine and brain.”
Not knowing what to say, I said the only thing I could say, “I’m sorry.”
Having been through the cancer gauntlet myself I sometimes fail to remember how terrifying getting cancer news can be, even news about a friend. A day like yesterday and the day before and the months and years before them march along, and then they get the news.
Up until getting told they would be joining the cancer club, likely they had little idea what all of it meant. Each day as the light peeped through their bedroom window, their alarm clock rousted them out of their slumber. Knowing they had to get to work, they rolled out of bed and splashed some water in their face, brushed their teeth and maybe shaved, let the shower warm-up, jumped in, soaped down, rubbed some shampoo into their hair, rinsed off, and then jumped out, dried off, got dressed and put on a pot of coffee while they ate something before darting out the door. Just another day among the thousands before it, they thought.
Then things changed. A call from their doctor’s office says, “Can you give us a call? It’s urgent.” They think it is to review their recent labs. The C-word is not on their minds. Soon it will be all they can think about.
All too soon they find themselves sitting in another doctor’s office they had walked or driven by countless times. They wondered what “oncology clinic” meant. One time they Googled it and found out it was code for “cancer.” Like most, they probably put it out of their minds. They never considered they would soon be there, sitting in a waiting room and tapping their foot, glancing at the time, wondering when they will be called back to an exam room to find out how bad it is — hoping something can be done, anything.
What Tim and I talked about over lunch is a blur. Normally talkative, I could tell his neighbor’s cancer news had crushed him much like an earthquake flattens buildings.
Later that evening I thought about our lunch and wondered why we didn’t talk more about his neighbor or how he was feeling. I suppose I couldn’t face it any more than Tim could. It seems devastating news like this always takes our words away.
In between bites of food, I found myself flashing back to my own cancer news as though it happened last week. Things I preferred never to think about again, ever.
A brutal surgery to extract my pancreatic tumor, followed by weeks of radiation and then months of chemo. Like I said, nothing I care to remember.
I suppose this is why we didn’t talk more about Tim’s neighbor’s news. This all seemed too close to home, my home.
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