When Moms, and Friends, Get Cancer
April 11, 2011
You know those friendships that just ‘click’ immediately upon meeting, with no need to backtrack into formalities because you’re already talking as if you’ve known each other for years? Those no-BS, no-pretense, no-judgment (lots of laughter) friendships that get better with time, and never feel stale? My best friend here in Austin is a friend like that. To sweeten the deal even further, we like each others’ partners, and like each others’ kids. Her son is Kaspar’s age, and the boys can play happily for hours. When we all get together, it feels natural and fun, and not like forced family socializing. I guess that makes us real ‘family friends’; we have each other over for brunch without feeling the need to manically clean our homes in advance, and we’re comfortable calling upon each other for impromptu childcare coverage when needed. Given the chances that two families (six people) within walking distance will genuinely enjoy each other, as well as share similar parenting styles and senses of humor, I’ve been feeling like we’re all super lucky. That is, until this past week when my friend got incredibly unlucky, out of nowhere, and was diagnosed with stomach cancer. At thirty-five. With a baby. With a life.
As her world stopped on its axis and then spun wildly in reverse, my friend navigated a maelstrom of appointments, tests, second and third and fourth-opinions, recommendations, and who knows what else, all in a matter of days. She dropped her son off at our house on one of those mornings and said, through tears, “I see people in line at the DMV… I want to be in line at the DMV!” I couldn’t imagine her son growing up without his mom. I couldn’t imagine what it felt like for his mom—my friend-- to imagine that scenario, either. In those first several days after her diagnosis, however, I saw her make a shift from being simply terrified to being both terrified and determined to get through this thing. Backed by prayers, healthy vibes, and good juju from all directions, she went in for highly invasive surgery and emerged intact. She’s in pain, but home, recovering, and waiting for news on whether she’s in the clear. She won’t get that news for another week. So she’s waiting, making plans, being brave.
This friend and I actually had a conversation, several months ago, in which we discussed how scary cancer is, how frequently it seems to strike, and how randomly, without discretion. We both know other moms who’ve been hit. We couldn’t even talk about kids, just couldn’t go there, but that fact (that cancer happens to kids… actually at increasing rates each year) was there as well, in the air around us. “How are we supposed to live our lives knowing that, at any moment, everything can just fall apart?” I asked her then. She’d shaken her head, “I don’t know…”. (So this obviously wasn’t one of those lots-of-laughter conversations). Then we’d stood in silence for a few minutes before returning to the party we were attending. We didn’t have an answer then.
Although she’s in the midst of her own fight right now (and asking that question in a literal way), I think she’s maybe begun to answer the question, to etch her own answer out of the stone wall she’s scaling, step by step. Prior to her surgery, and still now, she became remarkably receptive to love and encouragement in all forms as they were extended to her. She welcomed kind thoughts and prayers with true gratitude. She welcomed the experiences and stories of others who’ve survived cancer, and embraced new friendships as people reached out. She opened new books as they were given to her. She found a new focus—“The only way out is through,” and a new strength as she kissed her son goodbye before heading to the hospital for surgery. I saw her, in the face of terrifying circumstances, grab firm hold of any and all positive belief and determination as it came her way, and derive courage from it. I also saw her connecting with people in a remarkably open, loving, appreciative way.
She inspired the beginnings of an answer in me, too. On the day that she’d said “I want to be in line at the DMV,” (and haven’t we all just hated being in line at the DMV? What a perfect thing to say) I headed to work in the afternoon, at first feeling so, so sad. My mind wandered to places I didn’t want it to go—to my friend’s son not having a mom, to my son not having a mom, to sickness, to seeing the world around me through eyes that might not see it tomorrow… and then a funny thing happened. Eyes that might not see the world tomorrow notice all kinds of beautiful things. I noticed people’s faces around me. I noticed, intentionally and consciously, the smell of Kaspar’s hair (big deep breaths). Although I felt sad, I also felt appreciative of... everything. In the following days, I became more gentle with strangers, more patient while waiting in lines, more present with Kaspar, less likely to tell Aaron that he left the milk out and more likely to just put it back in the fridge, and tell him I love him instead. The mental backdrop to this state of mind was definitely a fearful “I don’t wanna die”-- I wasn’t, like, spontaneously enlightened or anything. But living with an awareness that, well, we don’t live forever made me live a little better—a little more tuned in to who I really want to be, as a parent and a person.
The question “How are we supposed to live our lives amidst the threat-- or, for some, the reality-- of cancer?” surely yields a different answer for everyone (check out Parenting.com’s own Erin Zammett Ruddy for an example of a cancer-survivor mom who’s living vibrantly, with heart and biting humor! And read Nourishing Path, written by another mom who survived cancer last year). I’m pretty sure, though, that the answers, for those with cancer and without, consistently involve things like receptivity and presence. At some point, I suspect we must also let go of fear. Then, returning to the party, the possibilities are endless.
Deep down, I believe that my friend is going to receive good news in a week, and that she’ll survive this. In the meantime, if you could send healthy thoughts, prayers and juju her way—and, while you're at it, towards all people hoping and fighting for good news, and for their lives—that would be wonderful, and very much appreciated.
Have you survived cancer? Do you have some encouraging words for my friend, and other moms, or families, facing life-threatening illnesses? Have you known someone who’s survived cancer? How did their struggle impact you? What can friends and family do for loved ones in the midst of the fight, or while waiting for news? Thank you for your thoughts!