The CancerLand Bookshelf: How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Author: Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Publisher: NY: Public Affairs, 2013
ISBN: 9781610392839
Cost: $24.99 US

After fifteen years in CancerLand, I know this much is true. After patients hear their doctor say, “I’m sorry, it’s cancer,” they do one of two things. Either they broadcast their health crisis loud and clear to all of their friends and family members. Or, if they’re like me, they get a cancer diagnosis and try to keep it hush-hush and on the “down low.” Like so many decisions made at difficult moments in life, keeping quiet about the breast cancer bad news – with the exception of telling immediate family and two close friends – seemed like a good idea at the time.

And the truth is, my privacy strategy actually worked for a while. Even after the first round of chemo when my hair (and eyelashes and eyebrows) disappeared, I masked my condition and tried to pass for healthy. I became an overnight eye makeup expert, using eyebrow pencil and eyeliner to fill in what was missing. I wore a wig – an ill-fitting, unflattering shoulder-length brown wig – that according to the manufacturer’s tag was named Jennifer. I even practiced the fine art of camouflage dressing to hide the changes to my upper body after multiple surgeries: tying scarves strategically, buying jackets made of soft forgiving fabrics with wide lapels and loose sleeves. Yes, I invested the time and effort necessary to keep my cancer a secret.

But everything changed one Saturday afternoon when I needed to cut the grass. With summer temperatures climbing above 90 degrees, there was only one reasonable option. I removed Jennifer, pinned her securely to a styrofoam wig stand, and covered my bald head with a black baseball cap. Then I headed out of the house, into the humidity to rev up the lawn mower. That’s when my next door neighbor Sally spotted me; she waved and walked across her driveway towards me, with a serious expression on her face.

My neighbor, whose conversational style over ten years’ time had never gone beyond the mundane – the weather, her dog’s eating habits, the merits of single stream recycling – would momentarily go boldly where she had never gone before. Sally came up to me and asked the question that no cancer survivor ever wants to hear: How are you?

Three syllables total. That’s all she said. But in the moment the words dramatically transformed, stretching into a sound bite twice as long, becoming a mournful dirge instead: howwww arrrrrrrre youuuu? With her head tilted sideways, eyes opened wide with concern, and her mouth turned-down at the corners, Sally was the iconic tragedy mask come to life. She scrutinized the pink patches of hairless scalp peeking out along the bottom edges of my baseball cap as she waited for a response. Crazy thoughts ran through my head, one after another. (How was I? Mortified! How was I? Outed! How was I? Struck dumb!) In the meantime, I white-knuckled the handle of my lawn mower and stared at the ground, wishing I could disappear.

Great! How you doin’? I finally blurted out. It sounded forced and phony, even to me. Sweat slowly dripped down my forehead. But my neighbor stood her ground and asked me another question.

No, I mean, really, Sally said. Tell me, what kind of cancer do you have?

What do you say when what you really want to say is, my cancer is none of your business. The information related to my medical condition is intimacy you have not earned. Go away and leave me alone.

What should you say when people violate a boundary this way? I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that this is the best that I could do on that hot summer afternoon so many years ago: Thank you for your concern, I said to my neighbor. I’m doing very well. It’s just not something I choose to discuss.

Funny how reading How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick brought that long ago memory to mind. Author and breast cancer survivor Letty Cottin Pogrebin would no doubt have something to say about my experience. In the preface to her book, Pogrebin writes, that she “became fascinated by the disconnect between how people treat sick people and how sick people wish to be treated.” She decided to explore the topic, beginning with her own experiences as a cancer patient. Then she took advantage of her downtime in the Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Radiation Oncology waiting room to interview fellow cancer survivors as well. Her conclusion is a thought provoking answer to my previous “what do you say” question. Pogrebin learned that when it comes to being a friend to a friend who’s sick, “empathy translated into action equals kindness.” And as the following excerpt from the book suggests, a fellow cancer survivor can be a fantastic resource for the kind of support patients need.

A sister cancer-survivor told me that whoever has experienced a serious illness or tragedy and reaches out to help a friend in comparable circumstances is like the person who is able to go into your cave and sit there with you in the darkness while everyone else is standing outside trying to coax you to come out.

That line spoke to me when I first got my diagnosis. So did a slogan I recalled from the early days of the women’s movement: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry with your girlfriends.”

I made a quick count of the breast cancer survivors among my far-flung girlfriends and came up with eight, count’em eight, women who had been through this particular mill, all of them currently flourishing. Fortunately, two of these women, Joyce and Lynn, are close friends, and I knew I could learn a lot from them because both are seasoned journalists and had researched their breast cancers as thoroughly as if they were reporting a Pulitzer Prize-worthy story on the disease. They had information and experience that could illuminate the dark corners of my cave, but if I were already resenting and resisting questions that sent me back to the early days of my illness, how could I justify asking Joyce and Lynn, who were years beyond their diagnoses, to revisit that period in their lives? I could, and I did. And being splendid human beings and loyal buddies, both made themselves available to me in every way. Separately they had been my friends and walking partners for some time. Now they became my cancer mavens and personal advisers as well…

Through it all-diagnosis, surgery, recovery, six weeks of radiation and bad reactions to two anticancer medications-Joyce functioned as my no-nonsense reality check and resident wise woman on all matters relating to nutrition, medication, exercise, vitamin, rest and relaxation. We talked about her friends’ different responses when she told them she had cancer, and she helped me understand a mutual friend, who, rather than deal with this kind of bad news, shrank from it and retreated. Once I knew I was to have a lumpectomy, Joyce kicked into full factual mode. She told me exactly what to expect from the operation and its aftermath. She encouraged me to do lots of research, be my own advocate, and be unashamedly aggressive about questioning my doctors. The day I panicked about what my breast would look like when the surgeon was done carving out the tumor, Joyce listened patiently to my anxieties about scarring, then did something I will never forget. When we found ourselves a deserted path in the park, she glanced around furtively, pulled up her shirt and showed me her scar. Nothing could have reassured me more than the sight of that simple unterrifying mark on my friend’s chest.