Caring for Friends with Cancer

One survivor on how people can help—and hurt—those with the illness
Caring for Friends with Cancer

My cell rang, and I looked for someplace private to take the call. I walked into the garage and closed the door to my office, which happened to be my car. Sitting inside the car, inside the garage, I found my familiar haven. With three kids and a constant stream of places to be, things to do, people to talk with, this place became my refuge, my place to regroup and sometimes even catch a nap. This time, however, I can’t remember even breathing. I fumbled to open the storage compartment to grab a pen and whatever paper I could find. The doctor said in a matter-of-fact tone: “I have your biopsy results. The pathology report shows you have invasive lobular carcinoma.”

I scribbled down the words, trying to sound them out. Something about pathology and those three foreign words. I cleared my throat, scribbled little circles on the corner of the paper to start the ink flowing again, and asked: “Wait. What does this mean?”

“I’m sorry. The biopsy shows you have breast cancer.”

I had no words.¹

Loving well those who hurt is often as simple as offering your presence.

Three days before that call from the doctor, my appointment for an annual mammogram turned into a three-hour ordeal, which included an ultrasound followed by a core biopsy. I left the medical office feeling shocked and bewildered. Exposed. Violated.

When I called my husband, the familiarity of his voice allowed space for me to lower my weakening attempts to maintain composure. Tears of confusion, fear, and disbelief silently dotted the sidewalk as I tried to explain what had happened. I stood on the crowded sidewalk and held back the growing urge to let out, in a deep guttural cry, the slew of emotions tumbling inside. Somehow I managed to make my way back to the car. Once inside, I tried to calm down and look out the window as cars passed by. Everyone going somewhere. And I sat and watched. My life—a sudden standstill.

A story a friend shared two months earlier in a noisy food court at the mall returned to me—about the “Asian Martha Stewart.” This woman had it all. The way she dressed, how her kids looked, her home, and the food she prepared—everything she did was, in a word, flawless. But she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and when my friend tried to reach out to help her she refused. She didn’t want to be a burden or put people out. She shut down emotionally. When the harsh cancer treatments devastated her body, she could no longer hold her perfect world together. Tragically, she committed suicide and left behind her husband and two children.

Now with my own cancer diagnosis, I stood at the same crossroad with the decision of whether I would stay in the familiar place of being the in-control strong one or take the braver road to let people into my honest thoughts and emotions.

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