When I was knee-deep in chemotherapy muckiness, my best friend, a nurse, came to care for me. She knew my chance of survival was slim because she had consulted all the members of the gynecologic oncology team at her teaching hospital.  She knew she could help me and my husband deal with the chemotherapy side effects and start to plan my transition.

She was helping me get the wet laundry into the dryer, when she said, “When you got cancer, we all got cancer.”

Honestly, part of me wanted to turn around and slap her. She didn’t have cancer!

I was the one who was ready to puke.

I was the one who couldn’t feel my fingers.

I was the one who was going to abandon my then 9-year-old son.

I was the one who was going to die.

She was going to live.

Who did she think she was to say SHE had cancer?

I paused before I wheeled around and raged at her. I took a breath. In that breath, her words hit my soul.

When we have cancer, we become victims to be pitied and cared for whether we want to or not. Suddenly we’re the ones dying and all attention is on us:

What’s the right treatment?

Did we take our medication today?

What can we eat? Did we eat today?

Can we even take care of personal hygiene anymore or do we need help?

The list of care is never-ending when we’re in a cancer crisis.

Many of us – even independent badasses like me – can fall into a woe-is-me pattern. This can be detrimental not only to our health, but to everyone else around us. The crisis is about our health, but nonetheless we need to get out of our own heads and fears. We need to remember that this isn’t just about us.

Yes, we are the sick ones, but what about the family and friends we’re leaving behind? We’re gone. In some ways that’s the easy part. They’re still here, grappling with the empty space that our deaths brought to their lives.

My best friend would have lost her ‘sister by another mother’, the person who can finish her sentences, laugh at inside jokes, and the person she wants to call when she’s finally ready to talk about the bad stuff that happens in life.

My husband would have lost his partner, life organizer, mother to his son and financial support.

My son would have lost the only person who gets his sensitive soul, his rock and everything else that a mother provides.

I was the one with cancer in my body, but everyone else I loved was equally shocked, scared and desperate.

When we’re on a cancer journey we need to be empathetic to the fears of our loved ones, too. We need to step outside our experience and pain to see theirs.

Many caregivers will try to be strong for us and will put their needs and wants to the side to make sure we’re okay. We need to let them have some self-care time for themselves.

We need to be a team as we deal with illness, wellness and the transitions in between.

Granted, part of what got most of us sick was thinking about others all the time and not ourselves. So it’s a balancing act. Focus on getting ourselves well without forgetting that those who love us need empathy and support, too.

We need to open our hearts to let them love us, and we need to send the love back. Because when we get cancer, everyone around us has cancer, too.


By Tracy White


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