Lessons of Cancer: Remembering to be Present Despite the Past


It easy to get wrapped up in the unknowns when dealing with cancer.

As my sister battled cancer, many people asked how she was doing and how we were doing. I am not sure I ever figured out how to best answer that question. You would think by how often it was asked, I would have. But I don’t think the people asking knew how complex a question it really was.

I know that those asking were sincere, but how do you answer them? More frequently than not, it was not a simple “we’re OK” or a “better than before.” No. For her, it was usually horrible news and involved things that I didn’t necessarily want to discuss in a hallway after I bumped into somebody.

When she was receiving treatment and inpatient, everybody in the hospital knew she was there. It never took long for word to spread that she was on 5C. People were both intrigued and concerned when they would get the news. The outpouring of support was always welcome, but talking about it was often overwhelming. I felt frustrated that words could be spoken, but nothing would change. In the end, she was still sick, and no amount of “I’m sorry” or “that is awful” was going to change that.

As time passed, I came to better understand that people did not ask “What can I do?” because they didn’t know what to do. It was not because they did not want to help. And though I have come to hate the words “I am sorry,” I know that they are spoken out of habit to fill the silence and empty space, even when words were simply inadequate. I learned that if I or my sister needed something, I had to speak up and ask for it. That is not at all a reflection of the support team that surrounded the two of us. It is simply a reality, as we are all humans. Cancer is still foreign to most of us, and society has not yet adapted to just how pervasive it sadly is in life.

I am better able to look back and have more answers now than I had in the moment. I came up with an email system nearly two years ago. Every now and then, or when something big would change, I would sit down and write. It was usually a long email and I would attach my address book of the many people who cared so deeply and send a mass update. It was far easier than to write each person on their own. It also meant that when I did run into people, they would know the latest changes and we could go from there. It is still one of the best decisions that I made and I have her nurse Kristi to thank for that idea.

As for answering questions, my take on how to do it has changed. Will it ever be simple? No. Coming to terms with that has made it easier, though. Knowing that in a two-minute exchange, I don’t have to explain everything. As where before the cloud of cancer always hung over the conversation, there is a silver lining now. So though complex, good news always lies within.

Some things still get to me. When people ask about her relapsing or if I think her one-year PET scan will be clean, it is a trigger. All of the worry and concern that I try so hard to push into the back of my mind comes rushing back. It’s not that the people asking mean to, it’s that they don’t understand. Cancer has a sort of worry/wonder complex. I often worry and I sometimes wonder what tomorrow will bring. Just as those asking all of the aforementioned questions above.

I think these emotions can be shared by many. Sometimes, it is nice to talk. To vocalize all that has happened and know that I am not alone. That as lonely as I, or we, may have felt, we have countless people who have walked this road with us. To share what is happening is simply another way to share the burden that we sometimes feel so obligated to carry alone. It is so very important to not let worry overtake us. To be present and live in the moment that is set before us. It is something easily forgotten, but always important to remember.

Cancer takes a lot from our lives; it even takes lives. For those of you who are survivors, and for those of us like me who care for one, we are lucky enough to say that we are here today. So the next time somebody asks, “How are you?” do your best to think about how you feel now, not what has happened in the past and not the worry about what might happen tomorrow. Think about what is happening now, today. After all, we can only take life one day at a time and face each challenge and accomplishment as it comes.

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