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Norfolk, Virginia is a medium-sized city with a small-town feel. Big enough that if you hit up a Starbucks in another neighborhood, you might be able to read the paper uninterrupted. Small enough that if you have troubles, someone always knows a resource that can help. This matters to me because I’ve needed a lot of help over the past few years.
In the three-year period between 2008 and 2011, my husband George was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, I lost my father to liver cancer and I was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer. I should also mention that George and I are 42 years old and have three kids under the age of 12. That’s a lot of bad news. Between our experiences as patients and caregivers, and because George is a physician himself, there is rarely an oncological question or emotion we haven’t asked or experienced. Now when anyone in the community is diagnosed with cancer, someone sends them our way for information and reassurance. Though George has and endless list of gifts and talents, interpersonal phone skills is not one of them, so I’m the one these scared cancer initiates get to talk to.
“Cancer is the ultimate leveler,” I tell my newest friend.
She’s the third in three months, but I have fielded dozens of calls before hers. Her name is Catherine and she got my number from a mutual acquaintance. Her husband Mark has just been diagnosed with melanoma. “When you talk to someone else with the same diagnosis, you skip over the bullsh*t.” I say, attempting to make her feel at ease. “This experience isn’t worth anything if I can’t help someone else going through it. George’s cancer had spread to his lung, adrenal gland, brain and pancreas. He was given six weeks to live.”
It rolls off my tongue so easily now, like I’m discussing the plot of some shi*tty TV movie.
“He’s three years out now from the last tumor they found.” I say. “Let him be your shining beacon of hope.”
I tell people what they want to hear, what they need to hear. They need a calm, reassuring voice on the other end of their frantic phone calls. They need a story they can latch onto. They need me. They need hope. I give it to them.
I don’t tell them that George is the only stage IV melanoma patient we know who is still alive.
It’s an interesting dance of the diagnosed. I remember struggling myself with what to say the first time I reached out to talk to someone else. How much is safe to reveal? Will this person betray my confidence? Can I trust her with my real thoughts? The ones that make me feel guilty? The ones that make me question the existence of God? The ones that make me look at my husband differently? The ones that make me look at him with anger about how attached I am and how I will, therefore, collapse when he inevitably dies from this? The ones that make me view him as the walking dead already? The ones that make me want to turn off my heart to spare getting hurt? The ones that convince me that no one else would or could ever love me the way he does?
Catherine tests the waters, as they all do, by revealing that she feels incredibly guilty about wanting to get out of the house and away from the three young children who need the attention and focus she doesn’t have to spare.
“They all need me.” She says, her voice starting to crack.
Catherine has begun to release the chokehold on emotions that have stayed locked at the top of her throat all day long, just waiting for a private moment to punch through.
“Catherine, it’s OK to need time away. There is so much support for the patient, but not nearly enough for the person caring for him. George and I have experienced both roles and agree it’s worse for the partner. Sometimes I would just drive and scream at the top of my lungs, pound the steering wheel or hit the seat next to me. I was furious but couldn’t find a channel to get it out. I yelled at God, but he never yelled back.”
She lets go with guttural sobs; the kind where you can’t catch your breath, the kind that make you double over and your knees buckle, the kind only born from a broken heart. She has given me the gift of her vulnerability and I feel honored to comfort her. Silently I wait as she unloads all that she has kept masterfully hidden from so many for so long, terrified of revealing her own terror.
Slowly, she begins to regain her breath and her crying subsides.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she says, “I don’t even know you and here I am spilling my guts!”
“I get it.” I say. “Not one piece of this is fair, Catherine. I keep waiting for the cancer that only strikes pedophiles, but I haven’t heard of it.”
She giggles through her tears and I hear the soft crinkle of a tissue as she wipes her nose.
“You are so reassuring, so positive,” she says, still sniffing. “How do you do it?”
I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m not convinced that George’s melanoma, or my breast cancer, is gone and will never resurface. I even wonder if I was destined to guide George through his illness so that he could be here for our children when I die. I have a 75 percent chance of beating my disease, but sometimes I can’t help dwelling on the 25 percent chance that I won’t. I look to my father, to the cancer that killed him too young, and see my genes staring back at me, my double helix forming the twisting roller coaster ahead. My cancer cells are simply dormant, just waiting for me to relax my guard, for the moment to fire up again and betray me. Only next time they will kill me.
In order to carve any sense of meaning out of this cancer bomb that detonated in our happy little life, I reach out to those traveling the path behind me. I help them navigate the forest of hospitals, clinical trials and doctor visits. I translate the new language of disease, diagnoses and drugs.
Each time I talk with someone new about cancer it scratches the surface of wounds that have been buried under layers of healthy check-ups and clean scans. I know their fear; I know their pain; I know their sadness. But I hope in talking with me, my new friends will at least know they aren’t alone.