Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
A single question acknowledging someone else's experience can lift the heavy feeling of cancer isolation.
I've written before that, for me at least, there are really only two things that need to be said to someone with cancer: "I love you" and "I'm here". There's no need for so-called "pity eyes" and words of encouragement. I know this from firsthand experience of being on the receiving end of statements that end up hurting me in tiny little ways that are hard to explain. I also have seen it from the other side, where I've realized that what I have a strong desire to say - usually some kind of unhelpful positivity spin - is not actually the best choice.
Still, it's best to say something rather than nothing at all.
I think about this often, not just because of cancer but because life is full of pain and fear. Too often, we decide to stay quiet at the moment when we need to speak.
I'm guilty of staying quiet. Sometimes the choice is a misguided attempt to lessen someone's pain by pretending, in my silence, that the larger picture of her life is the only thing worth focusing on. But seeing the "larger picture" isn't any comfort at all. In those moments, I also feel as though words can't come near the truth of a friend's experience. So what use could they possibly serve?
There hasn't been a time when I haven't regretted the decision to say nothing. A few nights ago, I met up with some friends of many years. They know me well, and I know them well. I don't expect my life to take center stage, especially since I would dislike that. In the past, I've said things like, "Let's talk about something else" when they've brought up the subject of metastatic breast cancer and me. So, it wasn't a surprise when none of them asked how I was doing other than as the most cursory question asked as a greeting rather than an invitation to answer with more than "Great! Thanks for inviting me over."
Talking about yourself when it is about cancer isn't a good time. People have opinions and advice; sometimes that advice is welcome and informed, but often it's not. It's difficult to not respond to an unintentionally hurtful remark with a short lecture about the realities of metastatic cancer. Talk about ruining a good time. And, anyway, they all know nothing has changed in my life.
When it was time to leave, the hostess gave me a hug and asked how I was doing. That quick, whispered question made me think about all the ways we try to hide and deny the painful parts of our lives. I appreciated her asking. I also recognized that we both knew I was never going to answer in any complete way - it was late, we were tired.
Still, that single question, an attempt to acknowledge my life, lifted the heavy feeling that I was all alone despite spending the evening with good friends. It resolved once and for all the question of whether to say something or say nothing when confronted with pain, sadness, loneliness in one I love or in one I hardly know.
Always, always say something to those you know are living with cancer. It often doesn't take much to make a difference.