Before being diagnosed with cancer, I would turn my gaze away from people who were suffering, but now, I connect with them, and know that it could be me.
Like most, when I saw someone hunched over a walker shuffling forward inches at a time, or someone using a wheelchair their body twisted, or a woman with a headscarf masking the ravages of her chemo, my eyes darted away. I suppose this is rooted in my mom’s constant scolding: “Don’t stare. It’s not polite.”
Before cancer, in some distant way, I felt sorry for those around me who were suffering, but more like one feels sorry for that innocent bug who skittered across the sidewalk only to be crushed under a shoe.
While I understood something horrible had gone wrong for them, I had no idea what. Even worse, I didn’t care. I was too busy with my dramas, the promotion I was striving for, getting flipped off by someone on the way to work, you name it. And perhaps the most appalling part, I could not begin to grasp how a health crisis can trash a person’s soul.
After cancer, everything changed for me. Overnight, I quit looking away from those who were hurting, and saw them. I saw their suffering. I felt their pain. I wondered, “why them? Did they do something to deserve their plight or were they a cosmic bug in the wrong place at the wrong time stepped on by the universe?”
For the first time, I realized they could be me. Much like Rabbi Harold Kusher wondered and later wrote a book about, I wondered why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Sadly, I am not sure anyone — and certainly not me — can answer why we see such horrendous suffering all around us, but this doesn’t stop me from wondering.
Now instead of looking away from them, their suffering has become personal to me. I taste it, pausing to offer a heartfelt prayer for them. I ask God to comfort them, to give them a break, to let them know they are not forgotten, but rather loved.
Occasionally, I will approach someone and offer a word of encouragement, any small kindness I can. But I need to get better at this. Too often I feel I will be an unwelcomed stranger injecting myself into their life, into their suffering, so I do nothing. I guess this is where the saying about “offering prayers and thoughts” gets its bad rep. It’s nice to offer thoughts and prayers, but it’s a whole other thing to put feet under these words.
The toughest post-cancer time for me is when I have a six-month follow-up at my clinic. Out in the waiting room, the suffering encases me. It’s visceral. I see so many who are broken down shells of who they used to be. Their vacant eyes and ashen skin betray them. I hope for them. I hope whatever their doctor tries next will work. Maybe a new chemo agent or possibly a trial. Anything. But fear grips me, that they are losing their battle, despite their doctor’s best efforts.
I realize they could be me.
I am most heartbroken when I see a young mom with her kids in tow. I hope she is there to support her mom or dad who is back in the chemo room, but I fear she is the one stricken. If she loses her fight, who will take care of her kids? Who will comfort them? Who will explain to them how brutal cancer is? How it strikes out at the least suspecting of us at the most inopportune time and snaps us in half like a dry twig.
But my worst days at the clinic are when I go to the chemo room to have an IV set for my annual CT scan. There the veil is yanked back on the ravages of cancer and its brutality. Like tombstones, brown chemo chairs circle the room. It seems they are all filled. But unlike a concert, no one is trying to get a seat there. Some people are tucked in under a blanket napping with their chemo line snaking up to their port. Others sit reading. Some have a friend or relative sitting with them.
Few talk. After all, what is there to talk about?
Before getting the news that I had pancreatic cancer, a type of cancer so few survive it is considered a death sentence, I had little clue as to how brutal cancer treatments can be. Nor did I understand how deep the suffering from surgery, radiation and chemo. Horrendous suffering, both physical and emotional, enough to bring even an Olympic athlete to their knees. It did me.
From this, I now have a different view of suffering. It’s personal. Looking the other way pretending I don’t see them is no longer an option for me. I need to do something.
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