People often tell me they don't know what to say to someone who has cancer, so they say peculiar things or have uncomfortable conversations in which the illness hovers but is not mentioned—or they avoid the person entirely. I know just what they mean. I suffer horribly from foot-in-mouth disease—and I've been the person who was avoided entirely (longtime colleagues who pretended not to recognize me in the elevator at work, friends who knew the situation and never called—you know who you are).
Yet there were many, many people who somehow said and did just the right thing when I was struggling through cancer treatment. Other was outstanding. Not only did he accompany me to all my early medical appointments (later, when they became more routine, he allowed friends to fill in for him) as assiduously as if they were his own but he also googled, brainstormed with friends at work, kept depressing statistics from me (10% survival rates for liver metastases, which briefly seemed my lot) while pressing promising studies on me, helped me make the critical decisions (lumpectomy? mastectomy? second opinion? third opinion? weekly Herceptin or larger doses every three weeks? reconstruction?). But most important, he lived with me every day, cooking huge wholesome soups on chemo day so I would have lots of fluids to flush out the poisons; hauling me to my feet and forcing me to take a walk on Day 4 postchemo when I felt like nuclear waste; pretending that sharing life with a bald, breastless, pasty-faced whining crone with mouth sores and chemo acne was just what he'd always wanted to do; and never faltering in his expressed conviction that I was going to be fine. He still thinks (or at least says) I'm beautiful—in the face of massive evidence to the contrary.
My kids C and J were good too. C asked me what she could do to help, and when I told her it would be great if she could get her school act together so I could focus on treatment, her GPA went from a C to an A (more or less) practically overnight. When my hair fell out, she told me I looked pretty good for a bald woman. And when my toe nails failed to grow back after being lost to chemo, she helped me buy manicure tools and then used them to scrape away the calluses and cuticles to unearth the missing nails, all the while insisting that, really, it wasn't that gross. Treasured words: "It would be disgusting if you were someone else, but you're my mom, so it's fine" (honey, that's precisely why it would be disgusting). J came over every two weeks to give me Neulasta shots. He knew how since he injects his cat with subcutaneous fluids (or something like that). He refrained from flinching at the prospect of inserting a needle into his mother's thigh. Both of them expressed a desire to go to chemo with me—and actually showed up when I arranged it.
Then there was AN, who went with me to virtually every doctor's appointment and procedure that Other couldn't make. She picked me up from my initial "surgical biopsy" (code name for a lumpectomy); helped me interview my radiation oncologist, taking verbatim notes; went with me to my breast surgeon to witness the removal of postmastectomy surgical drains (those mothers are a foot long!); distracted me with jaunts to the countryside; massaged unguents into my nail-deprived, cracked, neuropathy-numbed feet (some people say it with flowers, but AN uses her fingers)
HB, who sweated alongside me once or twice a week in weight-lifting and stair-climbing workouts, insisting that she was doing it for her own good and calling me to set it up when I didn't call her; giving me foot rubs (she and A should open a pleasure palace for foot-challenged women); making me strip down for full-body massages that dissipated that feeling of being "untouchable"; and forcing me to go skinny-dipping with her (just like a normal person!) the summer after my mastectomy
LG, the incredible human bulletin board who put me in touch with a friend who had had a nearly identical breast-cancer saga (right down to the same surgeon) several years earlier. L also generously offered to decipher my inscrutable insurance correspondence—and handed over filing boxes, folders, index cards and full instructions when I decided to go it alone
RK, who spent a full day shopping for headcoverings with me, and the other members of my women's group who listened to my whining week after week and kept coming back for more
SG, who spent lunch hours with me when I was in chemo
BC, who accompanied me to chemo and previewed books so I wouldn't stumble unawares on plot twists of death by cancer (such a cheap literary device—and they always get the medical details wrong, since they really don't care about the women they kill off that way, but don't get me going); and distracted me with movie dates
TES, who introduced me to live theater, enlisting me in a bargain-ticket organization, and shopped for lunch for me every Saturday (when I worked Saturdays) so I would be sure to eat something nutritious
BS, my no-b.s. yoga teacher who insisted I go to class even when I felt shy about my bald head (wigs don't stay on in inversions)—"Who cares what anyone thinks!"—and told me uplifting stories about her mother's 50-year survival from breast cancer
BDD, my boss, who told me to arrange my work schedule according to my treatment needs and not to worry about the job—and hired a stunt double to cover for me, even though I turned out not to need it
RR, who traveled 2,500 miles from California to spend a weekend with me to celebrate the end of treatment
DP, who motored down from Boston to take my mind off my troubles by turning me into a tourist in my own hometown
MK, a friend who had breast cancer—twice—and showed me by example that cancer could be survived and gave me great advice ("If you don't like how you look bald, stop looking in the mirror"), helped me pick out my wig, pulled strings to get me an appointment with my surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and kept meeting me for lunch even though the conversation (on my part) was pretty obsessively and hypochondriacally one-track, consisting largely of my exhorting her to cull her memory for minutiae of the symptoms of her recurrence
JFG, aka "the cruise director," whom I met in the radiation chambers at NYU. Three steps ahead of me, she led me through radiation (giving me detailed written instructions on everything from burn creams to radiation bras) and has held my hand ever since through recurrent bouts of hypochondria
MBP, who sent me oatmeal-raisin cookies ("Cookies are the best medicine")
MLBDW, who screened books to steer me away from downbeat cancer messages—and mailed the good ones to me
My mom, who reassured me that breasts were a disposable embellishment—not worth worrying about if, say, you had to part with them
ES, my office roommate, who was there when many of the phone calls bearing bad news arrived and responded with sympathy and affection
GDB, who gave me zip-up shirts that enabled me to keep my shirt on when I got chemo infusions in the port in my chest
And zillions of other people who said hello, asked me how I was, told me I looked good, offered simple encouragement. It didn't take much to cheer me up. I was hungry for any exchange that just affirmed I was still among the living—an affirmation I needed after running into someone I knew in the elevator who refused to even say hello (what the fuck?).