“You have cancer,” the doctor says.
For a moment, the only sound you hear is your heartbeat thrumming much too loudly in your ears.
“How bad is it?”
The doctor’s sincere stare unnerves you.
“Randy, it’s bad.”
This is the exact conversation held last week in the physician’s office between my husband and his doctor. Nothing can prepare you to hear those words. Within seconds, your life has changed.
Minutes later, you’re holding a handful of papers: pamphlets, orders, biopsy results, a CD with photos of the cancer, even the doctor’s personal cell-phone number. It’s pressing toward 5:00 pm, so you’re rushed to the clinic to pick up contrast liquid for tomorrow morning’s CT scan. Drink this. Don’t eat that. Call this number to arrange a consultation with the radiologist. Call this number to arrange a consultation with the surgeon.
Somewhere in there, you remember that you haven’t eaten since breakfast.
It’s an understatement to say that my husband and I were caught up in an immediate whirlwind—perhaps tornado is a better metaphor—within minutes of his diagnosis. We cried for a few minutes, but there were simply too many deadlines to meet to cope with the flood of emotions, questions, and next steps for tears just then.
And we needed to tell our son.
How do you break such news to an eighteen-year-old who is a day away from final exams? How do you risk discoloring what should be the happiest time of his life—his high-school graduation—which is only a week away?
When we arrived home that evening, our son was at work, so our decision to wait until after he’d completed his exams the next day was made easier. But in the meantime, we began receiving phone calls from concerned relatives who knew we were to receive the biopsy results—which we’d been convinced were going to be benign—that day.
We broke the news to immediate relatives who called, adding the admonition, “Please don’t say anything to anyone yet, as we can’t tell our son until tomorrow afternoon.” Besides, we’d have the result of the CT scan by then, so we’d know exactly what to tell him.
Relaying this news once is painful. Two or three times is agonizing, but having to say “aggressive cancer” five or six times is excruciating.
Bad news travels fast, and in a small town, it spreads like . . . malignancy.
By the time we received the results of the CT scan the next afternoon, our phones were blowing up. We shared the news with our son and discussed our next options and plan of attack. One day at a time. We will kick this!
As our home and cell phones kept ringing, we realized we had to get ahead of this, and we certainly had to free up the phone lines, as we were expecting calls from doctors and hospitals. Though we’d first said we’d never put such news on social media, we realized we had no other option—if not, someone would likely do it for us and perhaps not with the kind of message we wanted to convey.
That evening, we requested on Facebook the support, prayers, and love of our friends and family as we fight the battles before us in order to win this war. We anticipated dozens of responses, but we were truly humbled by the hundreds we received. The outpouring of love touches out hearts and does much to strengthen our faith and hope.
And then came the other comments: the scoldings via IM or text or phone. “Why didn’t you call me right away?” “Why did I have to read this on Facebook?” “So-and-so told me. You should have called me yourself!”
Hear me when I say this: it’s not about you.
It’s about the patient. And more remotely, it’s about his children and his wife and his parents and his siblings.
We’ll be the first to agree that Facebook isn’t the best place to break such news, but in order to maintain some semblance of sanity during an insane period of our lives, it seemed the logical option; the quickest and least-painful way to say those words once instead of dozens more times.
Worse than the scoldings, however, was the IM from an old friend who related the same diagnosis in her church member, and how the cancer had metastasized and invaded other parts of the body, and how he would soon surely die. I stopped her short between messages: “No negativity, please. We are surrounding ourselves with positive vibes, positive thoughts, prayers, and positive people. Faith, hope, and love.” It startled and appalled me several minutes later when she returned an I-wasn’t-finished-yet-here’s-where-else-he-had-tumors message. A few days later, I listened (briefly, before walking away), as someone else tried to tell me a horror story of another person with a similar diagnosis and rotten outcome.
Listen carefully: when you’ve learned that a friend or family member has cancer, if you can’t offer supportive, kind, uplifting, encouraging, loving, or compassionate words, then Shut. The fuck. Up.
Yes, I said that; and yes, I meant it.
I’m grateful to say that these kinds of comments have been few among the deluge of caring and encouraging, love-filled messages we’ve received. The sensitivity and compassion of our family and friends who have rallied around us have helped strengthen our resolve to face each morning and each long, sometimes-scary night with steadfast hope and faith.
Understand that, in the days that follow a cancer diagnosis, a person’s day-to-day life and that of his family is turned upside down and shaken. It’s easy to momentarily forget to call even the dearest of friends. Don’t be offended if, in the great confusion of the days following such news, you feel forgotten, and please don’t be offended if you (aren’t an immediate family member and you) learn such news through social media. Know that your friend still needs you—now more than ever before.
You don’t have to be Shakespeare to send an “I care” note to a friend who’s dealing with a devastating diagnosis; you simply have to be kind. Your friend needs you to remind him or her that there is hope in each new day. Put yourself in that person’s mindset for a moment, and think of what positive things you’d like to hear. Send warm thoughts and well wishes. Light a candle, and say a prayer (or twelve).
And if you have a spare moment, please say another for us.
” . . . but the greatest of these is love.” –I Cor. 13:13 (ESV)