Recently, I had an experience I feel compelled to share. First, so that my soul will settle about it. And second, so that I can show the people in my life for the past seven years that I understand a bit better what supporting me on my anal cancer journey has been like.
I have been helping out a friend of mine. He was diagnosed with cancer last year and was going through treatment, unbeknownst to me and to most of those around him. Then the symptoms came back and he sought my counsel, as one who had fought the good fight.
My friend was in need of advice and some support. I readily agreed to attend doctor appointments with him and help him navigate the labyrinth of cancer care. The first meetings were pretty straightforward. Biopsies and tests had already been performed and it was indisputable: the cancer was back.
The doctor outlined an aggressive cancer treatment plan — and told us it needed to start quickly. When he left to go check on how soon it could begin, my friend leaned back in his chair and took a shaky breath. Then he covered his face with his hands, his shoulders shaking as he cried. I hugged him and offered reassurance. Things would work out. We would figure it all out together.
Cancer treatment as a witness
Fast forward three weeks and two rounds of cancer treatment, which were laced with brutal side effects. Again, I took notes during an examination. The news was not what we had hoped. The cancer was advancing.
My friend was exhausted, dehydrated and damaged by the treatment. A third round of chemotherapy was an option, but his body was in no state to tolerate it. Also, it had only a small chance of helping. The doctor spoke gently now, using words like “quality of life,” “comfort” and “hospice.”
When we were alone, I re-explained the findings. I held my friend as the tears came. A few rogue tears of my own escaped, but I quickly wiped them away. I knew I needed to be a mainstay in that moment. I gripped his hands and told him that he and I were 100% alive right then, and that God was with us. I told him that he was not alone. It felt good to say it aloud.
We left the office hand in hand. When my friend was tucked safely in his car, in the care of another friend, I walked to my own vehicle. I said, “Well, that was just shitty,” out loud, to no one in particular. Two off-duty nurses turned to look at me. I apologized for my language and got in the car. Then, I took my own shaky breath and cried about all that I had seen and heard in the past hour.
What I didn’t know
As I recovered my composure, it dawned on me that there are caregivers and families everywhere who go through this every day. I want to say right now that I didn’t know.
I didn’t know what it was like to look at my face as devastating news was delivered to me. When my mind failed to grasp what the doctor was telling me, I didn’t know how it felt for my dearest ones to have to retell me the horrible news so I’d understand.
When my hands moved to cover my shocked face as tears came, I didn’t know about the helplessness felt by those who cared about me, the shock felt within their own being as they cradled me and let me cry, allowing only a few tears of their own.
I didn’t know about the words of comfort and reassurance spoken, so that I could have some sort of lifeline to cling to. I didn’t know they were clinging to it, too — all of us, holding tightly to what seemed like the tiniest thread of hope.
I didn’t know they were trying to work out a solution to a problem they couldn’t solve, because “it is what it is.”
I didn’t know about the conversation they had with themselves after I was out of earshot.
I didn’t know about the tears that came in private, as the reality of the choices I was going to have to make settled in.
This time, I was not the patient. Nor was I the parent, the sister, the husband, the child or the caregiver. Instead, I was the witness.
I didn’t know the entirety of it. But I want you to understand that I do know now.
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