When Your Friend Has Cancer
Cancer doesn't only affect the patient but also their friends and family. Today's post is written by Boobytrapp co-founder Béa's best friend, Pam. You can find more of Pam's awesome writing on her time living in Ouagadougou on her blog.
"You know, by the way, it’s still there", she said. We had just returned home to her flat after a day of roaming around Cartagena, this beautiful gem of the Caribbean. I could still smell the sunshine on my skin and the cocktail we had had in the sundown had left me slightly tipsy. “Scoot over and show”, I said and poked my finger into her breast, because that’s just how close we are. And there it was, a hard pearl under her immaculate skin. We drank, we discussed and we planned what to do. Some people need a little nudge to go see a doctor.
When she finally did I was back in the icy European winter. What happened was a doctor’s visit, the hope of the lump being just a benign little thing, or really, nothing at all, and that hope being crushed. A radical decision. Surgery, another surgery, another surgery. Endless accounts of pain. A physical wound not wanting to heal and a psychological wound even deeper. My first instinct was to jump on a plane, just be there to hold my friend’s hand. My bank account not allowing, I was there on the phone, basically all the time. But how can you be there without literally being there? Physical presence it seems, would make things clear. My situation was somewhat trickier. Sure, we sent a lot of messages back and forth over the Atlantic but I still felt utterly useless. My words being just a hollow shell, no real substance. A few years later, my mum got diagnosed with breast cancer as well. I didn’t live in the same place as my parents, but I got to see my mum way more often during treatment than Béa. I still felt utterly useless. Short of being an oncologist, there’s really nothing you CAN do but the good ol’ being there. (And I’m really not sure oncologists feel less useless when their loved ones undergo cancer treatment.)
So you hold hands, pick up the phone, type messages, cook lunches, dry tears and do whatever you can. Totally rocking the friend/daughter/*fillinyourposition* thing. Until you discover that you’re just human. You have a really hard time to cope with the reality of your loved one living with the big C and there are moments when you just burst into tears or wake up crying because you dreamed they died. At some point you’re annoyed that cancer and cancer treatment is now the only thing you ever talk about, surely that’s not all there is left in life? You will probably not agree with the treatment plan your loved one chooses. I personally was scared that a double mastectomy might be an overreaction. (It wasn’t. It never is.) Your loved one will start to use vocabulary you’ve never heard of. And because that’s their reality now, they’ll assume that you’ll understand too. But you’ll only get half of your conversation – your half. You’ll make a joke about something and immediately think that that was the worst thing you could have done, giving the gravity of the situation. (It isn’t.) And even though you’re trying to radiate positivity you’re just bat shit scared.
And then treatment ends and if you’re as lucky as me, you’re left with a loved one who’s very much alive. In my case both Béa and my mum. Treatment is basically over, both are scarred but survivors. Both in their own way contribute to helping others who suddenly find themselves in a similar situation. And as the friend or daughter or *you*, you’ll start to forget. Blissful ignorance, it’s all behind us, until a situation creeps up to you from behind and jostles you.
I had two of them with Béa in the last few weeks only: The first left me speechless. Béa matter-of-factly announced in one of our many written conversations, that that day was the four year anniversary of her double mastectomy. Euhm. Yeah… Congrats? I’m sorry? Of course you’d remember that date, it utterly changed your life! But how am I supposed to react? There’s a big void in my brain. I told her exactly that. She laughed her ass off.
The second was, just this morning, when she told me that she felt tired these last days, probably a little virus infection. Me: utter panic. The cancer is back. It was too good to be true. It’s all going to start from anew. I didn’t tell her that (she’ll have to read it here, just like you do). I kind of wish I had though, but I didn’t want to give her the same scare I had. So I trust that she knows better how she feels and if it’s necessary to see a doctor. I did give her a nudge in that direction, it will have to be enough.
So to all friends and family members of people living with cancer out there, here’s my piece of wisdom: be there and be honest. Talk about your feelings. I think it will make your loved one feel even more seen accompanied and you really don’t have to swallow it all by yourself. You’re a victim by proxy.
And to all those living with the big C, maybe tone it down a bit with the vocabulary (use it on other’s with the same condition, I know this fantastic app to do just that ;-) ) and don’t be scared to tell your friends and/or family what you need and ask for help. They’ll be forever grateful to be able to do something for you.