That's where some of the similarities end. Her cancer is stage IV. That means it has spread beyond the breast and local lymph nodes. It's in her bones. I am still practicing law; she has gone into disability retirement, because stage IV cancer is a full-time job. She was a civil rights lawyer.
Beth writes about cancer and many other things on her blog, and she is amazing. Her writing is great, and she is going to be in a new book! I am so proud of her and excited for her.
Recently she had a PET scan that showed her cancer is spreading more. It's not unexpected that a stage IV cancer would spread. That's what they do. They spread. Eventually they kill you. But I'm rather displeased to know that it's starting already. We all understand statistics, but this is MY FRIEND, goddammit, and I can't DO ANYTHING.
So. What to do? What to do? WHAT TO DO??
I have no idea. But then I was texting with her and she wrote, "You are a really good friend." I shit you not - she wrote that, while I was already mentally drafting this blog post -- before she had her PET scan results -- about how to be a good friend when your friend is in a cancer shitpool. I was a bit taken aback, because I was in a brain swirl of "FUCK IT I CAN'T DO ANYTHING WHAT THE FUCK DO I DO" when she wrote it. I asked her what I'd done, but she didn't respond to that question, probably because at the time she was at her oncologist's office doing her best to NOT DIE.
Here is proof:
Life is ridiculous. We might as well laugh about it as much as possible. Crying helps a lot, and grieving is an important part of the coping process. Not to be rushed. I'm rather strongly grieving my losses right now, as we approach February 14, One Year Later. Cancer is awesome... the formal definition: "extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear." But along the way there are also some good lessons to be had, including the great power of humor to lift spirits.
On a forum for young women with breast cancer, the level of wit, snark, and sarcasm that blends with the commiseration, support, and utter despair is a testament to the almost universal reach for and allure of humor in dark times.
Craig somehow knows these things innately, and he did something really amazing for me -- for both of us -- from the start of the process. Cancer treatment involves a great, great many needles. I am no fan of needles. This repeated trauma was a difficult part of treatment for me. The first time I went for a blood draw, before surgery, before anything, they asked at the lab, "port or vein?" and I started crying. I realized that to them, this was routine, and to me, it was going to become routine, and holy hell, I did not want that to be my routine.
To lighten things up, Craig curated his own list of jokes from the interwebs. And every time I was stabbed with a thin metal cylinder, he would be reading out a few ridiculous jokes. He had the whole lab laughing many times, including other patients, on the other sides of curtains. It was... awesome. The other definition: "extremely good; excellent." Humor is awesome. Even at the darkest times. Especially at the darkest times.
I've always hated laundry. Especially small children's clothing. Seriously? How can there be 762 items of clothing in ONE BASKET? And even when you're getting chemo and radiation, the children keep on with the laundry. It is NUTS. So is my friend Kristine, because as she was folding the 762nd item of clothing in one particular basket of laundry for me, she said that she "like to fold kids' clothes" because "everything is so cute and small and all the things are different." I don't know what that girl is smoking, but I kid you not - she wasn't saying it to make me feel better, she just enjoys folding laundry. Seriously. And she folded a lot of laundry for me, on my bed, while I lay there and talked. And she spent a lot of time at my house, playing with my kids, while I sat there and watched. I couldn't do it, Craig couldn't do it, and she did it, and she smiled, and I am getting choked up even typing this so let's just summarize and move on: do things for people that they can't do for themselves, seemingly little things that keep coming up. Work it out with them what helps, and do it like you want to do it, and smile, and later they will get choked up about it. Here are some suggestions: LAUNDRY, dishes, rides, vacuuming, bill paying, decluttering, grocery trip planning or doing, vehicle maintenance, getting gas filled, playing with kids, walking pets, helping with kids' homework, taking kids out for a donut, watching kids, running errands, helping respond to email. Whatever helps. Not what you would want if it were you - what they need.
My neighbor Anand made me the best chai in the universe every morning and left it on the porch [ed. note: child and/or spouse labor often involved in delivery, and sometimes in manufacture, of chai] so it was there when I woke up and dragged myself out of bed. Sometimes that took four hours, and a few times, the chai was the only thing that got me out of bed. Everyone has a "chai" that will get them out of bed. What's your friend's chai?
I think you all know this. People still need to eat. And their kids especially don't understand the problem. Make food. But make food they like, because nothing is worse than having food made that you don't like and your kids won't eat. So ask what they like, and make that. Or don't. Buy them gift cards to places like Dinner's Ready or similar places, or places they like that will deliver, or whatever works for them. You don't have to be a chef. Some of my favorite meals - a bunch of various stuff from a yummy grocery store deli, plus a couple of random sandwiches, plus a couple of desserts for the kids -- no cooking, just bought and brought to the house, so everyone in my house could pick at what they wanted and no one complained. Magic.
Listen to them. Write "no response needed" at the end of the email. You weren't going to get a response, anyway, but writing that makes it easier for them to not feel guilty about it. Read their blog posts before asking what is going on with their cancer, because maybe repeating the same miserable experience over and over again might not be what they want to do. Or don't read it, but then don't ask about it. Don't tell them that they "have to fight" or "keep a positive attitude" and they "will be OK." Believe me, I say this from personal experience: it is hard to absorb so much hope and anxiety from people who so very much want you to be OK, and hard to handle their fervent and sometimes overt wish that you'll confirm that you're going to be OK, when you're not sure what you are and you don't even feel human. If you Google what not to say to someone with cancer, you'll find a good hit list. Like this one. And you could do it the other way too: what to say to someone with cancer. Just read a bunch of them, and you'll get the idea. But more importantly than all of it, be supportive even if they are doing things you wouldn't do. It's not you. Listen. Support, listen more. Then listen more.
From the friend side, it's never enough. You never feel like you're doing enough. I'm on both ends of this one. I want to do more for my doppelganger, and I just can't, because what I want to do so badly is to cure her cancer. And I just can't. (Sidebar - donate to places that research cures for metastatic cancer instead of awareness, and that's a good start.) I'll never feel like I'm doing enough.
And from the other side - being the receiver? It's all enough. Whatever you can do, is enough. You wrote a note? That's enough. You called? I'm not really a phone person, but ok - that's enough. You made a meal? That's enough. You went out for coffee and listened? That's enough. You read a blog post and made a supportive comment? That's enough. You care?That's enough. You don't have to do it all. You don't have to do it every day, or every week, or every month. You don't have to feel guilty because you didn't write. Be you, be real, be present, be honest, reach out, do what you can. I know how you feel. It's enough, because it is all there is to do.