One thing that terrifies me about cancer is the idea that friends will stop being emotional with me and instead make my unhappiness the center of everything we talk about. To keep moving forward, I want to know, and share, what makes you happy, yes, but also what annoys you. “You have to empower the other person in any relationship to be as much as they can be,” Dr. Norlock said. It turns out that grunting — and hearing other people’s grunts — is a central part of me that feels like me.
We all struggle. Even those of us going through particularly difficult times in our lives have the ability to empathize with others, and for me at least, empathizing feels good. Throughout the pandemic, and now as we witness the horrors of war in Ukraine, it’s easy to feel that unless our circumstances are the worst, we don’t deserve any compassion.
It is simply wrong. On the one hand, it makes us less likely to ask for the help we need, and on the other hand, it creates a power dynamic in which the person in difficulty is somehow beholden to the listener, rather than to recognize that we all go through tough times and that no one who brings a pan to my family while I am in chemo today, may one day in a few months or years need a meal, babysitting, children or a journey while she mourns the loss of a parent or is dealing with a chronic illness.
We are not competing in the Olympics of suffering. We live in an unfair world. I often feel unworthy of complaining as I head for chemo at a cancer center in my chargeable car, my stupidly expensive cell phone ringing with well wishes from friends and neighbors letting me know that they’ll bring enchiladas later. Being sick takes a lot of resources, and I am well aware that I have more than many people. But acknowledging that others have it worse doesn’t change the fact of my own suffering – which is real.
My daily life is spent balancing the practical with the existential; As I piece together a summer of camps and activities for my kids, there’s a sub-narrative in my head that asks me how they’ll remember me if I die and what I can do to prepare them for it. The light and the heavy are inextricably linked, and they really always are. Almost 40% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and we are all going to die of something. The reality of that is just closer to the surface for me right now.
When you have cancer, you hear a lot about the importance of a positive attitude, and to some extent, that’s true. But looking on the bright side can start to feel like a script I’m running rather than an actual communication of how I feel. When I complain that it’s annoying to constantly have to vacuum my own hair, like some kind of giant cat living in my house, and I’m met with a sympathetic ear and a sense of camaraderie in the form with a pity, that seems honest. I feel like myself, not the sad mother of cancer who can only think about her mortality.
The truth is that I am both of these things. I’m extremely optimistic, living my life here, making vacation plans, reading bedtime stories, and working. I’m also very scared. And it helps me to know that one of my worst fears – of becoming someone deemed worthy only of sympathy rather than an entirely reciprocal friendship of shared triumphs and disappointments – has not come true.