For the past twelve months, cancer has been on my mind more than anything else, but I've written very little about it, if only because a blog like this seems like a somewhat inappropriate place to detail the ins and outs, ups and downs of somebody else's illness, but also because cancer is a very difficult concept to talk about in the first place. Anywhere. In any situation.
What might I have written about that didn't degrade or somehow diminish the seriousness of the disease? I suppose I could have charted the day-by-day blows of chemotherapy, or the month-by-month uncertainty, confusion and hope that are par for the course when treating something as monstrously, desperately grotesque as this, paradoxically, exceedingly human (but never humane) condition. You could also argue that every time you share a part of yourself, your private self, somebody reading it will grow, and be enriched, and, in turn, learn a little bit more about themselves, and be a better person for it. That's the People-Magazine-Oprah-Dr.Phil line, anyways, but in this age of celebrity confessional and online blogs, it seems to me that privacy has lost its power. To be private is to be selfish. Better to let everyone know all of your foibles and faults, your dreams and disgraces; better to open yourself up and let it all bleed, psychically split wrists staining the metaphorical bathtub red.
Well, that ain't my style.
Better to pick and choose, I believe. I don't necessarily want to know about your restless nighttime thoughts, and you probably don't want to hear about the aches and pains that carry me through my day. We can all handle only so much, and usually the day-to-day detritus of own lives is enough. We all select what we give, but we often don't get to choose what we take. People tell us information, difficult information, life-and-death information, and we have to respond. In civil society, we've got no choice.
But how do you respond to cancer? How do you bring it up? How do you, well, talk about it?
You just do, that's all. The same way you talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs' latest game, or the weather, or whether or not Britney Spears is ever going to stop pumping out kids at annual intervals.
I'll think you'll find that people with the disease will be more than happy to fill you in on the latest details. Not because they're dying to let it out, eager to expose their innermost agonies, but simply because they're happy that you cared enough to ask. If you don't ask, if you don't come, it's human to think that you don't care. Of course, with cancer, that's not true; we know that it's a difficult topic to bridge, an enormous burden of small-talk to lift. But the conversation is much better than witnessing the worried eyes, the furrowed brow, the sudden tears that well up from nowhere. (Or not showing up at all in the first place.)
And it's good to know that people are thinking of you, and are willing to talk about something so inherently difficult to discuss. I read an interview with actor James Woods this week in the online L.A. Times, and he mentioned the fact that every little word of encouragement and support and thoughtfulness was greatly appreciated in the wake of the recent, unexpected death of his younger brother. He didn't think little things like that would mean so much -- but they did, and they do.
If you know someone that has cancer (or any other illness, for that matter), ask them how they're doing. Ask them if it hurts. Ask them what the chemo was like. You're not prying; you're being considerate, and thoughtful, and caring. The patients will tell you what they want to tell you, anyways -- nothing more, nothing less. If they're going through chemotherapy, go to see them every day and twice on Sundays. (Or, barring that, as often as you can. Yes, it's a long drive. Yes, your day is long. But the hospital room is a cold and sterile place for days on end, and how much Bob Barker can one person take? If you were laying in bed for two, three days in a row, strapped to a machine, watching your hair fall out and onto your chest, wouldn't you be glad, if not ecstatic, that somebody took the time to stop on by, if only for a moment?)
Cancer is a lonely place for the person living with it, and every gesture you make, verbal or otherwise, online or elsewhere, will help alleviate their suffering.
Okay. Sermon over.
Oh, and in case you're wondering?
She's feeling just fine, thanks.
And thanks for asking.
(See? That wasn't so hard, right? In hard times together we can be brave.)