“How’s it going?” I ask the teenager sitting across from me.
I choose my words carefully before speaking them aloud. Consciously avoid saying how are you? Or worse, how are you feeling?
He’s a kid with cancer getting chemo every three weeks. I’m his assigned English tutor, helping him keep up with his school assignments at home during the “down time” he needs to recover from treatment.
But I’m also a cancer survivor and chemotherapy veteran – experiences that may be much more relevant to this young man right now. More helpful in fact than any advanced American Literature course I aced as an undergraduate.
How weird is this? A teenage boy and a middle-aged woman and here we are in the very same club: the Cancer Club. Not by choice, of course, but card-carrying members just the same.
Today our assignment is Of Mice and Men, and it’s no surprise to me that my student is struggling to remember the details from his reading.
“I think something happens with Lennie and the puppy…” he begins, but before long shakes his head in frustration, unable to recall the scene.
“No problem,” I say with a smile. “I remember chemobrain.” I prompt him with some details and together we page through the book to the chapter under discussion.
But it’s clear that my chemo confession has changed the dynamic between us. My student didn’t know that I was in The Cancer Club before and now he does. I feel him looking at me with a different expression on his face: less guarded, more open. Maybe it’s because my chemobrain comment leveled the playing field. Forget the teacher/student relationship for the moment. Now we’re just two cancer patients chatting together.
Before long we stray from Steinbeck to steroids (my thoughts jump around like crazy for a few days afterwards, he says…and I am quick to respond, I know, I know. I couldn’t sleep on steroids, so I cleaned out closets instead – lots and lots of closets). We debate various ways to mask the metallic taste in your mouth that often comes after chemo. (Have you tried sucking on hard candies? I ask. Lemon flavor worked for me).
Our chemo conversation is a tangent, and we’ll get back to the rabbits and the American Dream and my lesson plan before long. (All in due time, as the old saying goes). But for now we are fellow travelers in CancerLand and need to share that experience with one another.
That special connection between cancer patients, that instant intimacy, is something other cancer survivors often celebrate in their writing. Please check out an excerpt below from Ruth Rakoff’s wonderful memoir below that just happens to be the newest addition to my CancerLand Bookshelf.
Excerpted from: When My World Was Very Small: a memoir of family, food, cancer and my couch by Ruth Rakoff (Random House Canada, 2010).
Membership in the cancer club gives one tunnel vision. Once you are in, a poignant awareness of other members emerges. It is not type specific. Despite the uniqueness of each diagnosis and every experience, the universal bond that determines club membership defies cell permutations and mutations. Slowly, my belonging became apparent to me.
Out for lunch with a friend, I noticed a woman wearing a close-fitted cap. It was a cold day, so to the uninitiated it may simply have appeared to be weather – or fashion-related, but not to me. I knew she was one of us. She looked at me, and I looked at her. We didn’t smile or wink at each other in any discernible way. It was silent acknowledgment from one capped woman to another. I wondered if she noticed that we both ate only half our food. I wondered if she wondered about me what I wondered about her-what kind, what stage, what grade?
I bump into James, an acquaintance, in the street. My belonging to the club is unmistakable at the height of treatments.
“Are you doing cancer?” James asks.
“Yup, I’m doing cancer,” I reply, knowing that he is a fellow traveler.
“What kind?” James asks.
“Breast,” I say.
“Lung,” he says, gripping my shoulder as though it is a secret handshake.
“Keep the faith,” he says, and moves on.
People who are not members of the cancer club want to introduce members to each other. “This is Debbie. She also has breast cancer.”
Or they assume that membership implies association. “You must know Ginny. She had breast cancer.”
And to my surprise, I want to meet Debbie and I will seek out Ginny now that I know they are members. We are bound together by shared experience, by catastrophe, by hope.