I met my friend M. while she was doing an undergraduate summer internship in a cancer research at the university where I worked. A year later, she joined my school as a PhD student and I trained her when she did a research rotation in my laboratory. About this time last year, she had a night on the town cut short by sudden, uncontrollable bleeding. She went home feeling pretty sick, and later that night, her boyfriend rushed her to the emergency room. Later on that week, she was told that that she had cancer.
We were friends — not best friends, but close enough where we regularly shared stories about our wacky families and our mutual fear that a life at the bench might not be for us, met for lunch, and watched basketball games when we could. In the months that followed, we got a lot closer. I visited her in her emergency hospitalizations, helped her sort through the business of hospital billing, and drove her to her specialist appointments four hours away at Johns Hopkins University. We even ended up being interviewed for a “Dateline” special together for a documentary on cancer patients!
In the time that she wasn’t in the hospital or at home recovering from procedures, we spent a lot of time talking. She told me all about how she wanted her life to be as normal as possible, so whenever I called her, we talked about the most mundane things like the latest gossip about our coworkers and the quirks about our bosses.
The thing that she didn’t know was that it was actually really hard for me to act like things were normal. I didn’t know why, but sometimes the prospect of talking to her was sometimes really daunting for me. Sometimes I wouldn’t respond to her email and phone calls right away. I hated it because I wanted to be a good friend to her, but I didn’t know how to deal with what I was feeling. I’m ashamed to say that the reason was that I just felt uncomfortable being reminded with the fact that she had cancer — and it could have been me!
The fine folks at Awareness Always recently pointed to a 2005 story in Time magazine entitled How to Talk to a Friend With Cancer. It was an interview with Lori Hope, a cancer patient while she was promoting her book, Help Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know.
I was particularly struck by the following question:
Q: Why do you think so many of us feel tongue-tied and awkward around cancer patients?
A: You are confronted with the possibility of death, and you are afraid. And, in a way, you are relieved it’s not you. It brings up so many fears.”
I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t the friend that I could have been to her during that time, but reading this helped me realize that this is apparently a common reaction. Read the article if you get a chance — it’s an enlightening read.
By the way, my friend’s okay now and back in school full-time. Also, Awareness Always has some really neat jewelery on sale, including this Daphne bracelet. A huge percent of the profits go to charity, so check them out!
For my readers who have recently known someone close who have been diagnosed with cancer — how did you handle the news, and how did you deal with your own feelings during the more difficult times? I’m curious to hear your stories — click on the “Submit your Story” tab or leave it in the comments!1
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