I was listening to the introduction of Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture," a speech I've listened to many times in my pre-cancer life, but this time it made me burst out laughing. After he explains that he has approximately 10 tumors in his liver and his doctors told him that he has three to six months of good health left, he follows up with: "If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be ... sorry to disappoint you." He then proceeds to pump out one-handed and clap-between push ups and demonstrate that he's probably stronger than most anyone in the room. Unfortunately, he's since succumbed to his terminal cancer, but it's obvious that he blew away perceptions and expectations along his journey.
People – friends, family and medical staff alike – constantly say to me: "Well, you look great," or if it's over the phone, "Well, you sound good." And I always wonder what their expectations were. Then I realize that on paper, yes, it makes sense that for what I have going on in my body and how aggressive this cancer and this treatment is, I should look like an ashen walking corpse, but that is simply not the case.
Despite how widespread cancer is in the world, there seems to still be such a stigma around the word that elicits a lot of fear and mental images of people spending every waking moment vomiting, weak and morose dangling from their last thread of life. When in fact, so many people are living, yes, living with cancer. Living despite the disease in their body.
Anytime I'm in a crowd at a sports game or the mall or at a play, I am always wondering how many other cancer survivors/fighters there are surrounding me that I would never be able to pinpoint. We don't all look alike. We don't all feel the same way. The word "cancer" is just far too general to describe the intricacies and uniqueness of the different forms that it can take. There is no one picture of what a cancer patient is supposed to look like.
That's the funny thing about cancer. It can wreck havoc internally but not show anything outwardly. How can I fault anyone for not knowing what to say when they see me for the first time in a long time? Or, when I drop the cancer bomb because they have no idea what's been happening in my life. There is no "right" thing to say.
Saying anything is better than saying nothing at all, even if it's just saying: "I just don't know what to say." To again quote Randy Pausch, as his father always told him: "When there is an elephant in the room, introduce it." I try to be sure to acquaint people with my elephant when I can see they are struggling with whether or not to acknowledge the figurative animal for fear of upsetting me. It doesn't upset me. I know it's there and I appreciate when people express their empathy and support. But pity? Now that's something I don't appreciate.
I laugh because despite how curious it is for me to hear, I catch myself saying to other patients: "Well, you look fantastic!" all the time, because you know what? It's true. And maybe it sounds trite and maybe it can be perceived that it's discounting what they're going through, but I think any cancer patient can benefit from a little ego boost, especially when we are hurting so badly on the inside. No matter what might be happening biologically, the spirit still shines through brightly. That is something that can't be overtaken by sunken eyes and pale skin. Sometimes it takes someone else to point that out.
I read an excerpt by writer and performer Jenny Allen, author of the one-woman play: "I Got Sick Then I Got Better." She was also a patient at Sloan-Kettering and was featured in the hospital newsletter. I don't agree with everything she says, but I think it's refreshing and extremely brave for her to speak about what it was like for her to hear the sometimes profound, sometimes odd things people chose to say to her and about her resulting reactions, which totally depended on her mood that day – something I can completely relate to. Talk about acknowledging the elephant in the room.
Cancer patients aren't just the feeble, bald, hopeless beings that Lifetime movies are made of. We're still people. We're still living. And yes, damn right, we can still look damn good.