Tomorrow, my cousin’s wife will be starting chemo for breast cancer. She was diagnosed a few months ago and has already undergone a partial mastectomy. When I learned about her illness, I posted briefly over at my Planet Cancer page (which I admit has been sorely neglected since setting up See Emily Play), and in the intervening months I have kept in intermittent contact with her over email. A few weeks ago, I was heartened when she reached out to me with specific questions about my own recovery. Answering those questions gave some focus to the nebulous feeling I had of wanting to do something, anything, to make this terrifying time easier for her. Suddenly, I was the one feeling helpless – wanting to do something, but not knowing exactly what.
Right after learning of her diagnosis, I felt this impulse to slap on the Cancer Cape and fly to her rescue. Then I stopped myself. Everyone is different. Her cancer is different, her life situation is different. She is in her 40’s, with three small boys. She has other people in her life to provide support. Just because I’ve been through cancer doesn’t mean I know everything.
When I hear about or from people who are newly diagnosed, I feel like all I want to do is provide something for them that I didn’t have when I was sick: a sense of perspective from another young adult who has been through it. I eventually found that place on Planet Cancer, but I didn’t have anyone like that in person, close to me, anyone I actually knew or could reach out to, who understood the unique experience of being a person in the prime of life who is stricken with this stupid fucking disease.
So right now I am walking a fine line. Chemo starts tomorrow for my cousin’s wife, and what I really want to do is pick up the phone and just tell her I am thinking about her and wishing her well and sending good vibes. Beyond that, I am not quite sure what to do. When I returned from Jackson, feeling 10 feet tall and completely unstoppable, like a bottomless pit of cancer-fighting energy, I talked about flying out to Minneapolis to help out with the kids, make some meals and just be “the one who gets it.” Now, though, I am not so sure. Time will tell.
What I realize is that it is vital to let people who are going through the cancer experience for the first time to feel their way, and to call the shots. The last thing I want to be is the buttinsky who thinks I know best just because I’ve been there, done that. One of the cruelest parts of cancer is how it robs us of our sense of control, and I certainly don’t want to do anything that’s going to contribute to that sensation.
I don’t have all the answers. But what I do have is the wealth of my own experience with cancer, and the fact that I have come out on the other side, perhaps even stronger than I was before I was diagnosed. And one thing I do know is that when you’re facing the fear and uncertainty of cancer and treatment, and the havoc it threatens to wreck with your body and your life and your soul, the one thing that helps is knowing that life will, in fact, go on.